Eye-Opening Student Refugee Experience

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Student Sidney Pratt with refugee family she cared for. Photo courtesy of Pratt.

By Quincey Taylor

You own a bakery. It is just you, your spouse, and your two children. Each night a threatening barrage of gunfire keeps you awake. Walking the streets has become too dangerous, even during daylight. Then, miracle of miracles, you and your family manage to escape the terrors and reach a different country. You leave behind most of your belongings and use most of your money on a flight. You are so grateful and happy to finally be safe, but to your dismay the troubles are not over. Rather than gunfire, now there is a seemingly infinite number of papers to fill out and questions to answer. They are extremely difficult for anyone to answer, let alone someone who has just gone through a traumatic experience. You do not know the language. You are suffering from crippling PTSD and depression. It seems like such a long road to travel before your life will be normal again.

This story is a sad reality for the millions of refugees all over the world. Each year, more people are displaced from their homes due to violence and tyranny. For nursing students everywhere, it is crucial to learn more about these populations that they will undoubtedly encounter. To prepare the students at BYU College of Nursing, associate teaching professor Debra Mills teaches a refugee and immigrant education course each winter semester. As part of their spring practicum in June, nine students attended the three day North American Refugee Health Conference in Portland. Students had their eyes opened to the many difficulties refugees encounter and how nurses, as health providers, can be sensitive to their needs.

The conference was open to anyone who wanted to learn how to help refugees in their community. Students mingled with social workers, refugee resource managers, mental health workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, researchers, physicians that work in refugee clinics, as well as refugees themselves. They heard inspiring speakers that had fled their own homes and come to the United States seeking refuge.

Nurses need to have their horizons widened and be aware of the cultural differences that they might encounter in the medical field. For example, if a woman from Sudan comes to the hospital to be treated, a male nurse cannot treat her because that is against her cultural beliefs. Mills commented on the experience, “We need, if we’re going to be healthcare providers, an understanding that not everybody has the same way of dealing with health, of dealing with illness.” She added, “It’s amazing to see how similar we all are. Everyone is one of God’s children. Some of our brothers and sisters, by no choice of their own, suffer violence, tyranny, lack of food, lack of resources, lack of shelter. We need to help them.”

Refugees face a multitude of challenges upon entering a new country. They must find a job without knowing the national language. They might have previous injuries or illnesses. Maybe they came from a country with free healthcare, but now they are expected to pay for it. Children learn the language much faster than their parents and often become the translator, taking on a bigger responsibility than their age usually permits. Families often feel that they have lost their culture. In some cases, they do not want to be here, but for safety reasons they have been uprooted to a foreign land they do not identify with.

Sidney Pratt, a student who attended the conference, described it by saying, “Not only did it show the many different options of resources we have but it also showed me a sliver of what a refugee has to go through to come over to the United States. Knowing this helps nurses to better treat patients in a holistic manner.” Students who sign up for the course get to experience foreign foods, clothing, traditions, as well as help a local refugee family. Mills thought the experience was extremely valuable for her pupils and hopes to return to the conference next year.

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