Pacific social work students providing invaluable support to Afghan refugees

Muddox Building on Pacific's Sacramento Campus.

Students from Pacific's Health Care Master of Social Work program are helping Afghan refugees get resettled in Sacramento.

Afghan refugees who have fled to the United States are getting much needed support from students in University of the Pacific’s Health Care Master of Social Work program on the Sacramento Campus.

“People who arrive here need everything you can think of: legal assistance, schooling, medical, social support and much more,” said Nurit Fischer-Shemer, assistant clinical professor and interprofessional education coordinator for the social work program. “These families are coming from extremely traumatic experiences.”

Last fall, 10 Pacific students partnered with students from University of California, Davis to form small groups with expertise in social work, medicine, nursing, cultural customs, interpretation and more. Each group was assigned a refugee family to assist in Sacramento.

The number of Afghan refugees resettling in Sacramento grew dramatically in 2021 after the military withdrawal from Afghanistan, according to the nonprofit Opening Doors, a refugee resettlement agency in Sacramento.

Their agency accepted the second largest number of arrivals in the United States.

While Opening Doors helps families who have just arrived with urgent needs, they’re relying on students to help families who have been in the area longer, at least a year for most of them.

“We wanted to support the families in ways that we as an agency just don't have the time or the staffing capacity to help with and at the same time immerse students into the culture and allow them to understand the struggles and challenges that these families have to go through,” said Hibatallah Hummadi, health programs manager for Opening Doors.  

“My job is to really get a feel for what the family is missing,” explained Grace Petersen ‘22, a first-year graduate student in the social work program. “I just ask them, ‘How can we help you? In what way do you feel like you would be more prepared for any challenges?’” 

Petersen says it’s been eye-opening to learn families don’t know about some of the resources available.

“My family, for example, they weren't aware of interpreter services, and they did have some ongoing health appointments, so I was kind of shocked that they didn't know they could request an interpreter who spoke their language,” said Petersen.

At her second visit she learned the family had already put that new information to use, obtaining an interpreter for a recent medical appointment.

Shevalier “Swan” Swanson ’21, ’22, another graduate student in the social work program, is trying to help a family of six whose father died over the summer find housing and a medical provider.

“They were already trying to navigate different resources and then the father passed. Trying to keep going has been a lot, so we're also trying to seek resources for the wife and the kids that need counseling and also food sources. I know that some of them are underweight,” said Swanson. 

The initiative, called RICE (Refugee Interprofessional Community Engagement), began in 2017 with UC Davis and Opening Doors. After being temporarily put on hold during the pandemic, it started again in the fall of 2021 with Pacific students brought in to add an extra layer of support.

Michael Wilkes, professor of medicine and global health and director of global health at UC Davis, says pairing social work students with medical students creates a winning team, well-suited to address the needs of refugees.

“(Refugees’) problems are far deeper than a medical diabetes test or a TB test or something. They get to the core of health care disparities and what health in its broadest definition really is, including housing and food security, so we recognize the providers that deal with those sorts of things most eloquently and skillfully are social workers,” said Wilkes. 

The experience is not only helping refugees get access to crucial resources but giving students valuable experiential and interprofessional learning opportunities.

“It’s giving (students) a real-life perspective of what is really happening out there beyond academia walls,” said Fischer-Shemer.

Swanson says in just the first two visits, her team members have already been learning from each other.

“It's helping us learn how to communicate and work in a team … (and) how our skills come together as one,” said Swanson.

Current students will conduct home visits with their families through May. The program will continue after that with a new group of students lending support.

Hummadi says through their agency’s caseworker she’s heard how grateful the families are to have students supporting them.

“Not only are (students) providing more tailored services to the families, but reinstilling their faith in the health care system and just in the American culture overall,” said Hummadi.