Understanding Humanitarian Health—and My Own Refugee Family
In Jordan, I grew in ways that I still have yet to fully process. What I do know is this. My experience abroad helped me define what I want out of a future career in health: to reduce health disparities and address the forces that contribute to them locally and globally.
As a first-generation college student and son of Eritrean refugees, study abroad wasn’t the first opportunity I thought about when entering college.
I used to believe that studying abroad wasn’t really for students like me, with significant financial need—after all, how would I be able to fund the experience? I thought there were no programs relevant to pre-med students and too many pre-med requirements to consider studying in another country. I believed that studying abroad would distract me from reaching my academic and health career goals.
If you’re in a similar position, you’re not alone, but study abroad is possible for almost any major. After talking to friends and advisors, I began to see global learning as an experience that would help me become a stronger candidate for medical school and offer unique opportunities for personal growth.
When choosing a program, take time to identify your motivations for studying abroad and the major things you hope to learn. I chose the School for International Training (SIT) Jordan: Refugees, Health, and Humanitarian Action to understand my own parents’ experiences as refugees and how refugees impact a country’s health care system. The international refugee situation in the Middle East is complex and challenging, and I wanted to examine what health disparity in the context of displacement looks like.
Other features drew me to Jordan. It has always been a dream of mine to learn Arabic, a close relative to Tigrinya, my first language. A culturally immersive experience in the Middle East, the chance to live with a Jordanian host family, and opportunities to work on site with global organizations and conduct an independent study project to develop my field-based research skills were also factors in my program choice.
My study abroad experience left me with a better understanding of my parents’ story—how and why they ended up in the United States and the challenges they faced along the way. My parents’ lives were upended when the Eritrean war of independence intensified and made living at home unsafe. Out of fear for their lives, they fled, hiding during the day and trekking at night, entrusting strangers with their lives, and living with the uncertainty of another tomorrow. They slowly made their way to Sudan, where they were able to seek physical and legal protection—a goal analogous to that of many displaced Syrians in Jordan.
When I wasn’t in the classroom learning Arabic, I was out on field visits to Palestinian and Syrian refugee host communities, health care facilities, local NGOs, and relief organizations across Jordan
The SIT Jordan program was a dynamic and transformative experience for me in part because of its emphasis on experiential learning. When I wasn’t in the classroom learning Arabic, I was out on field visits to Palestinian and Syrian refugee host communities, health care facilities, local NGOs, and relief organizations across Jordan.
I spoke about international humanitarian law and human rights with experts from the United Nations Refugee Agency. I learned about health challenges and barriers to care for displaced populations from World Health Organization officials. While at Jordan’s Ministry of Health, I talked with authorities about the impact of Syrian refugees on the health care system and other sectors. After each visit, we held a debriefing session where everyone reflected on our feelings and what we got out of the experience. Listening to others’ thoughts helped me connect the dots in places I never would’ve imagined, allowing me to find even deeper meaning in my own experiences.
When my parents became refugees, my mom was only a teenager—which in the context of displacement, comes with its own set of vulnerabilities. Her schooling was interrupted, and her dream of one day becoming a health care provider was permanently put on hold. My dad, in his twenties, abandoned his livelihood of selling chickens, which had sustained his family for years. Like my parents, many Syrians before the conflict had ordinary lives that didn’t seem very unlike yours and mine. They had dreams. They had good days and not so good days. They had families they went home to and friends they’d hang out with.
The thing is—they are still very much just like us. To be a refugee is essentially to be an ordinary person caught up in extraordinary circumstances. To forget this—to label them as “others”—is to deny their experience and to free ourselves of responsibility.
In Jordan, I grew in ways that I still have yet to fully process. What I do know is this. My experience abroad helped me define what I want out of a future career in health: to reduce health disparities and address the forces that contribute to them locally and globally. I want to use my time in medical school to explore challenges to health, in particular in underserved immigrant and minority communities.
I learned from my time in Jordan—and through my own parents—that people can be enterprising and remarkably resilient in the face of extreme adversity. The human cost remains tremendous, however, and cannot be alleviated without equitable access to health care and other services. Progress depends on us caring to make a difference. My time in Jordan pushed me to rethink the role of a physician and empowered me to make sure my interests in medicine and social justice do the greatest good.