, , , ,

Every Tuesday, Beyond Boulders runs a five-question interview with either a first-year Schweitzer Fellow or a Schweitzer Fellow for Life (ie, a Fellow whose initial year with ASF has been completed, but whose commitment to lifelong service continues).

In our sixth installment, we talk with 2008-09 Chicago Fellow Mansha Mirza, who developed and implemented a program to help service providers at World Relief address access to medical care, social services, and disability resources for refugees with disabilities.

Why did you develop your particular project?

I am a doctoral student in Disability Studies [at University of Chicago at Illinois], and my dissertation research involved ethnographic field work with refugees with disabilities resettled in the Chicago-area. During my field research I became aware of some service gaps for this population, and saw that these service gaps probably stemmed from lack of time and lack of awareness about disability-related resources among refugee service providers.

On the other hand, based on my past experiences with mainstream disability service and advocacy organizations, I knew that these organizations do not generally have the wherewithal to reach out to refugee and immigrant communities. As a result, people with disabilities in these communities tend to have several unmet needs.

In fact, people with disabilities often tend to remain hidden in these communities. If you’ve noticed, people with disabilities are almost never seen in immigrants’ rights rallies and campaigns.

So I thought it would be a nice idea to develop a project that connects disabled refugees with disability-related resources in their communities, and also one that facilitates some kind of networking and dialogue between refugee service agencies and a prominent local Center for Independent Living.

What do you hope will be the lasting impact of your project on the community it serves?

Over the course of the Fellowship year, I was able to initiate a couple of activities that brought refugee service providers face to face with mainstream disability advocates and disability service providers. During these encounters, each side discussed their own challenges in terms of addressing the needs of disabled refugees and conferred about possible areas of collaboration.

I sincerely hope that this dialogue and networking continues over time. One could have a series of students like me taking turns with similar projects at individual refugee resettlement agencies, but long-term and lasting impact in this area will only be possible through ongoing collaboration between the various stakeholders.

What do you think is the most pressing health-related issue of our time, and how do you think it should be addressed?

I think one of the most pressing health-related issues of our time is access to health care services, although the exact cause(s) for lack of access or limited access may vary depending on the context. For example, in developing countries in South and Southeast Asia, access is a bigger issue for rural-dwelling communities. On the other hand, in developing countries in Africa, one of the big issues is brain drain of health professionals.

In terms of the United States, however, the problem stems from a system that tips too far toward the end of profit-making. You know you have a serious problem when people who have no training in healthcare or no personal experience of a particular illness are the ones calling the shots on when someone can get a medical procedure or screening. You know you have a problem when research studies show that almost half of all bankruptcy filings are partly the result of medical expenses even for people with health insurance.

There’s no easy way to address this other than comprehensive healthcare reform. I think it’s about time that the locus of healthcare decisions be brought back into the collaborative dyad of the consumer and the health professional. Alongside with that, however, we also need a kind of paradigm shift in health education that emphasizes health as a social justice issue. Emerging health professionals need to be aware that the realm of health goes far beyond the individual cell or human body and encompasses socioeconomic, cultural, and political factors as well.

What has been the most surprising element of your experience as a Schweitzer Fellow?

I was surprised at the responsiveness of the community. Based on my past experiences, disability-related issues often figure last in the list of issues that communities or agencies wish to address. So I have come to expect that I’ll need to make a strong case for why disability issues need to be considered as part of community initiatives.

However, I was surprised that I didn’t need to do much convincing while working on my project. The refugee resettlement agency I worked at was very interested in the perspective I was bringing, and the staff at the agency were open and receptive to my ideas. The Center for Independent Living that I worked with was also very enthusiastic about the idea of collaborating on the project.

One of my goals for the project was to do a brief presentation on disability rights and disability-related resources for a neighborhood coalition that operates in a neighborhood with a large number of resettled refugees. The coordinator of the coalition instead proposed a community forum with a panel of guest speakers both with and without disabilities. So what was going to be a 30-minute presentation turned into a 2.5 hour event with 60 attendees!

I was also impressed, though not exactly surprised, at the high caliber of the other fellows in my cohort in terms of their commitment to service.

What does Albert Schweitzer’s legacy mean to you, and how will you carry it with you after your year as a Fellow draws to a close?

Dr. Schweitzer’s legacy to me means a lifelong commitment to human service and social justice. His entire life is an exemplar of dedication to causes that are larger than one, one’s family, and one’s immediate community. That kind of dedication and commitment is hard to emulate. In a materialistic world, it’s often easy to succumb to the prospects of well-paying jobs and cushy comforts.

Going forward, I hope I can continue to resist material benefits in favor of community service. Since I’m a researcher by training, I hope to be involved in research projects that draw attention to social justice concerns and action-oriented projects that contribute toward change at community and societal levels.

ASF’s Chicago Area Schweitzer Fellows Program was founded in 1996.  Since then, it has supported over 350 service projects throughout the city of Chicago and DuPage County, equaling almost 70,000 hours of community service. This year, 33 new Fellows from the area’s top colleges and universities have been selected to join the program’s ranks, each partnering with a local agency and devoting more than 200 hours of service—click here for details on the new Fellows’ projects.