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Home News Medical Students Adapt During Pandemic to Serve Refugee and Immigrant Families

Medical Students Adapt During Pandemic to Serve Refugee and Immigrant Families

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Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students Sarah Yosief (left) and Luma Abunimer are co-president of the Refugee and Immigrant Medical Association. The student-run organization adapted plans for what is normally an in-person health fair due to the pandemic. They surpassed their goal and were able to distribute bags of food, goods, and resources to 300 refugee and immigrant families in the community.

Virginia Tech Carilion School of Medicine students in the Refugee and Immigrant Medical Association (RIMA) had to get creative to continue their annual health fair.

The student-run organization began an annual health fair called Trails to Care in 2018 to serve the diverse refugee and immigrant community in Roanoke. But the pandemic made the traditional in-person gathering for health screens, health and community resources, and other pertinent information nearly impossible.

“RIMA exists to serve the communities’ needs,” said Luma Abunimer, second-year medical student and co-president of RIMA. “We are driven by whatever our local partners tell us is most important for the community at the time.”

Abunimer and Sarah Yosief, also a second-year medical student and co-president of RIMA, led the planning of this year’s fair. They looked to their mentors, Vydia Permashwar, associate professor of pediatrics, and Lakshmi Patel, of the Roanoke Refugee Partnership, for guidance on how they could continue service to the refugee and immigrant communities this year despite the pandemic.

Permashwar sees many refugee and immigrant patients in her pediatric practice and recognized that food insecurity was often a challenge for these families, which was exacerbated by the pandemic. “A lot of them lost their jobs in construction, the food industry, or factories,” Permashwar said. “Many are not eligible for some types of assistance because of their immigration status.”

“They are already disadvantaged because they are refugees and immigrants, and now there’s an additional burden of the pandemic,” Yosief added. “We made a target goal to help 300 families. Though we realized we could not help everyone, we hoped this goal would have an impact on those in most need.”

They decided to put together bags for each family with food, household items, health and hygiene items, and health information resources that could be delivered to each family, instead of having them gather in-person for a fair. But first, they needed money, food, and supplies.

“After the need was identified, the biggest challenge was to do as much as we could to acquire the items needed and in a quantity to help as many families as possible,” Abunimer said.

Abunimer and Yosief reached out to previous health fair sponsors and asked for donations of money, goods, or both. Then, they reached out to new organizations to ask for support.

“Every year when new medical students join RIMA, they obviously have a heart and a passion to work with the refugee and immigrant population. Every year, you can see that passion come through,” Patel said. “This year, there were so many challenges because of COVID. But Luma and Sarah stepped up, took it in stride, and they did not give up. They were extremely determined, which is why it ended up being such a success.”

The students also organized food drives at the school and other locations around the city to garner additional donations.

“Grace and determination is how I would describe Sarah and Luma,” Permashwar said. “They were very humble and hardworking, but at the same time, you recognize their leadership skills because they were absolutely able to mobilize a large group of medical students at the end to help make the event happen this year.”

“When we first proposed this switch due to the pandemic, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into or that we had the capacity to do what we did,” Yosief said. “We are very grateful for all of the overwhelming support we received.”

In the end, the students raised more than $8,000, which was $3,000 more than their goal. Additionally, they collected more than 5,000 pounds of food, including a variety of grains, vegetables, and fruits; hygiene supplies, including thermometers, sanitizer, and dental kits; and household goods. It was enough to serve their goal of helping 300 families. “We were really happy to see what we can do for the community,” Yosief said.

RIMA worked with Roanoke Refugee Partnership, Commonwealth Catholic Charities and Casa Latina to identify families who were most in need of the help this event provided. The bags were distributed to the families over a weekend in February.

While Abunimer and Yosief were the primary event organizers, additional students from RIMA as well as students, faculty, and staff from the medical school, volunteered their time to sort supplies and organize the bags for distribution.

“I, personally, am feeling very grateful for all of the community support, including big and small donations, without which we would not have been able to accomplish these goals,” Abunimer said. “I’m grateful for the organizations that are already doing this work and that have been doing this for a long time.”

Beyond this annual event, students in RIMA volunteer with the Roanoke Refugee Partnership and other local organizations throughout the year to support refugee and immigrant families through health literacy and health care access, present research related to these communities statewide and nationally, and also host educational events to build awareness of the needs of these families in the medical school community.

“The medical school has been tremendously supportive,” Patel said. “It’s great that they’ve been a community partner ever since this has started. They’re always willing to give and figure out how best they can help.”

“I think the students have collaborated wonderfully with the local community in many ways and have been responsive and adaptable to the needs of the community over time. They have exemplified the best of academic endeavors meeting community work in a way that promotes a true understanding and awareness of the health system, including its limitations,” Permashwar said. “I am always proud and frequently amazed by their initiative and determination in these activities!”

While this year’s health fair may have taken more time than Abunimer and Yosief initially expected, it was worth it. Both students have a passion to help refugees and immigrants as well as other disadvantaged groups, particularly within the health care arena.

A first-generation American, Abunimer notes the work is personal for her. In addition to her parents immigrating to the United States, she has family members who have been displaced as refugees. “We, as a medical community, have a responsibility to extend hands to those people who are marginalized, voiceless, or who live in fragile communities,” Abunimer said. “Being in medical school is an immense privilege; any way in which I can increase awareness and continuously engage with what’s going on outside of our school is very important for me.”

Yosief shares a similar background. “I am a daughter of refugees and I have been able to witness firsthand the struggle of embarking a new journey in a completely foreign country after leaving behind everything you know to start from nothing in hopes for something better.”

She added that refugees and immigrants have a sense of humility and are not quick to ask for help, either because it is inherent to their cultural background or the resilience their journey has led them to build. It is also common because they are not sure what may be available to them. That was one catalyst for the fair – to showcase resources to the community that may not otherwise ask.

To be humble and grateful for what you have was part of my upbringing,” Yosief said. “Now, as I am in medical school, I have recognized my privileged position and so have made it a priority to take advantage of it to speak up and help create opportunities for those that have been marginalized and disenfranchised.”