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Each week, Beyond Boulders delivers a new installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow” – an interview series with Schweitzer Fellows across the country and in Gabon, Africa who are leading the movement to eliminate health disparities. For an archive of previous “Five Questions for a Fellow” interviews, click here.

"They have the right to health and happiness just as much as anyone else," says Walsh of her motivation for working with Worcester's refugee youth. "They just have a few more boulders to move beyond than others do."

Earlier this year, ASF announced the selection of 25 new Boston Schweitzer Fellows—two of whom (Meredith Walsh and Toy Lim) are the first Fellows ever selected from the University of Massachusetts Graduate School of Nursing.

In this installment of “Five Questions for a Fellow,” we talk with Walsh, who spent four years on the Thai-Burma border—and is now working to improve the overall health of  refugee youth in Worcester through a unique, soccer-based Schweitzer project.

Why did you decide to develop your particular project?

When I heard about the Schweitzer Fellowship, I was already involved with a small group of individuals committed to helping refugees from Burma in Worcester. I had an interest working with refugees from Burma because I spent four years on the Thai-Burma border working with refugees living in camps and with internally displaced populations in Burma.

Having seen the extreme hardship these folks experienced from their villages in Burma to their escape into Thailand to life in refugee camps, I wanted to see how these refugees fared once they resettled to the US.

Once I started visiting them in their homes, I was disheartened, to say the least. So much hope they had of finding a better life was quickly dashed in the face of a new set of stressors and hardship.

Initially inspired from a conversation about refugee youth and the Schweitzer Fellowship with Brian Guercio, a medical student at Dartmouth, I decided to focus on youth aged 15-24 from Burma. Since I had worked on adolescent reproductive health programming with refugee youth from Burma in Thailand, it made sense to carry over this work and apply my experience to the young people in Worcester.

As I began an informal community assessment of needs as identified by the youth, parents, school administrators, health care providers, and religious leaders, my project evolved into developing a Burma Youth Organization where young people could come together and use each other as resources to develop a strong cadre of peer leaders in the refugee community. It turns out establishing a soccer team has been the most effective way to bring them together.

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

I hope the youth will take the organization as their own and will continue to serve as leaders within the community from Burma. There are at least five different ethnic groups from Burma in Worcester, and these youth are in a unique position to bring them together and identify common experiences in the acculturation process. I want them to gain the confidence they need to achieve what they want in life. They have the right to health and happiness just as much as anyone else. They just have a few more boulders to move beyond than others do.

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

That’s a difficult question to answer, even with time to think about it. I struggle with how to define “our time” and “most pressing.” So I will answer this under the “big picture” of global health.

From a human rights perspective, I think the most pressing issue that tackles the root of global health-related problems and that has the longest universal impact is the right to decide when and if to have children. Maternal mortality, neonatal mortality, infant mortality, and child mortality can all be linked to lack of reproductive rights. If this human right were afforded to all, families could spend more energy on raising happy and healthy children who will succeed in higher education, who will provide economic gain for the family, and who will support the parents in their aged years.

How should we address this?

1. Reproductive and sexual health education for all – beginning in prepubescent years and continuing throughout life. This should be in school curriculums around the world, adapted to address cultural considerations as appropriate.

2. Contraceptive services for all – even for those who are unmarried. A great number of unintended pregnancies are among unmarried youth who have no access to prevention measures or knowledge of contraception.

3. Counseling for families on how to plan when and if to have children – what to take into account, what options are available, adapted to address cultural considerations as appropriate.

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

I was most surprised by the lack of cohesion among youth from Burma. There are significant ethnic differences, both culturally and linguistically, and tension has been evident among them.

It has been an interesting learning experience for me to change my approach from the lens of youth development to a lens of peace-building. Our soccer team, Burma United, was aptly named to address this issue. The team has made great strides in working together as a team to resolve differences on and off the field.

What does being a Schweitzer Fellow mean to you?

I am humbled to be among such an inspiring group of people who are all working tirelessly to make the world a better place. We are elements of change.

Meredith Walsh is a Schweitzer Fellow in Worcester, MA. Click here to read more about The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program and the Fellows like Walsh it supports in creating and carrying out yearlong direct service projects that impact the health of vulnerable communities. To make a gift to The Boston Schweitzer Fellows Program in honor of Walsh’s efforts to improve the health and lives of refugee youth, click here.

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