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ASU students address health needs of local refugees

Socially conscious ASU students are enacting smart plans to help refugees acclimate through health and education

three women sitting in a moving van with furniture

May 15, 2018

Roughly 80 percent of the 62,000 refugees who have come to live in Arizona since the Federal Refugee Resettlement Program was established in 1980 reside in Maricopa County. Many have endured violence and years spent in camps lacking basic resources, leaving them with myriad health-care concerns.

At Arizona State University, several socially conscious students are rising to the occasion and addressing this need in their community by providing care for refugees. R.E.A.C.T. and Smiling Eyes, two student-run clinics, aim to give refugees free health-care education and resources. 

“No matter where refugees are, transitioning to a new country and home with little resources is always really difficult, so just being able to provide that for them is our mission,” said Julia Lorence, founding member of R.E.A.C.T. and biomedical sciences undergrad.


After attending Mayo Clinic’s annual conference last September, Lorence was moved to create an organization to help underserved communities. She shared her idea with biochemistry classmate Chance Marostica, who expressed similar aspirations.

Together, the pair presented the concept for R.E.A.C.T. (which stands for refugee education and clinic team) to Professor Lara Ferry, director of the School of Mathematical and Natural Sciences and faculty adviser to R.E.A.C.T., who was “blown away.”

“They had thought of every detail,” she said. “Their plan was very clever about partnering with nonprofits and medical providers to make sure they were doing everything right. It’s really an amazing example of what our students can do. The whole effort embodies ASU’s mission.”

With Aidan McGirr, Nyla Shah and Ashlee Starr (also pre-health majors at ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences) on board, Lorence and Marostica began establishing relationships with local nonprofits geared toward refugee resettlement.

Working with Gathering Humanity, the students spent much of finals week furnishing West Valley apartments for incoming refugees and created an illustrated flipbook demonstrating basic hygiene and health care to leave in the apartment for them. They also hosted educational workshops on topics like handwashing and exercise.

“The ASU connection has just been marvelous,” said Christina Atwood, director of Gathering Humanity. “I think it’s really bridging a gap.”

Though they were meeting their goal of health-care education, R.E.A.C.T.’s long-term goal was to serve as a fully functioning, free student-run clinic. To do that, they needed experienced clinicians.

As luck would have it, Marostica met Mayo Clinic School of Medicine student Michael Sarvi on a service trip to Nicarauga. Sarvi and a small group of other Mayo Clinic students had recently established their own student outreach group to serve underserved communities.

Realizing they each had something to offer each other — the Mayo students their clinical expertise, and the R.E.A.C.T. undergrads their community connections and manpower — they decided to join forces.

“We’re learning as much from them as they are from us,” Sarvi said.

Right now, R.E.A.C.T. is working on solidifying rapport with the local refugee community and nonprofits, and securing a physical location for the clinic.

“We’re still taking baby steps,” Lorence said.

She and the rest of the group will be completing cultural humility training in May, after which they’ll be submitting R.E.A.C.T. for consideration to ASU’s Changemaker Challenge.

“It’s those little things that I am grateful for at ASU,” she said. “I am so thankful to be offered this platform where you can live out your dreams and passions, and then see new students follow happily and … truly have an impact on the community.”

Smiling Eyes

In 2015, ASU’s Office of Global Social Work was established with Barbara Klimek as its director. Having worked in the field for 25 years focusing on refugee populations, Klimek came to be known as the go-to person for students interested in that type of work.

Since joining ASU, Klimek has made it her mission to promote research, community collaborations and international faculty and student exchange related to refugee-themed social work.

Just last month, students from the School of Social Work collaborated with RICE (Refugee and Immigrant Community for Empowerment) and Arizona Healthcare Outreach to provide a pop-up dental clinic for Phoenix-area refugees after the city expressed to them that there was a need in that area.

“We were well aware that refugees needed dental care, but having the resources to put something together that’s sustainable and effective was a completely different story,” said Clinton Reiswig, a public policy graduate student.

Reiswig and others helped recruit local dentists to provide free or low-cost services. The program that resulted, Smiling Eyes, offers not just services but also the opportunity for refugees to learn new skills. ASU students work to train them in administrative functions for the pop-up clinics, such as scheduling and taking a client’s personal information.

Going forward, the Smiling Eyes pop-up clinics will be offered twice a month on Saturdays, from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 3581 W. Northern Ave. #8 in Phoenix.

Other endeavors the Office of Global Social Work has lead in the past few years include the Global Market, a pop-up shop in downtown Phoenix that provides space for female refugee artisans to sell their wares; the Refugee Health Video Project, a series of short orientation videos explaining how to navigate the U.S. health-care system; and Peace and Sustainability Clubs in Nepal, in which students travel to Nepal for one month to help create and maintain peace and sustainability clubs in middle schools.

“I think especially at ASU, students are into what we are saying about it being a modern university oriented toward innovation and solutions to big problems, not only in our local communities but globally,” Klimek said. “They want to get engaged, and [educators] can help by asking them what their passion is and helping them to create projects around that using whatever resources are available to us.”

Top photo: Founding member of R.E.A.C.T. and ASU biomedical sciences undergrad Julia Lorence (left), psychology undergraduate Katherine David and Gathering Humanity volunteer McKinlie Jones (right) pose with furniture and household items in a moving van while working with local nonprofit Gathering Humanity to furnish apartments for refugees newly arrived to the Valley. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

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