Advocating for Asylum-Seekers through Connections between the University of Michigan and Physicians for Human Rights
Thousands of tents lined the crowded streets. The sun was rising slowly on the horizon. At the end of the street stood a large white tent, hovering above the others. A physician and nurse sat in the shade that the tent provided. Quickly, hundreds of people began to line up in front of the tent, waiting to be seen by the health care providers. The doctor handed the coughing children honey, a rare treat that trickled down their lips and stuck to their hands. The children ran around the tent that we had set up, clinging onto my stethoscope and Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) badge. As I worked closely with Dr. Janeway to provide care to those seeking asylum at the border, I felt truly grateful to be a medical student at the University of Michigan.
As a medical school applicant, I was drawn to the University of Michigan Medical School due to the wide array of opportunities for students to participate in volunteer activities and advocacy efforts. At Michigan, students are given many opportunities to explore advocacy both within the confines of Michigan Medicine and beyond. The school truly understands the importance of training the future generation of physician advocates.
Given my interest in advocating for immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, I dove into advocacy opportunities my first year as a medical student by joining the Physicians for Human Rights student chapter, also known as the University of Michigan Asylum Collaborative. Specifically, I served as the Co-Executive Director of the Asylum Collaborative during my first year of medical school. During my first and second year of medical school, I also collaborated with attendings and other students in providing forensic evaluations for asylum-seekers; such evaluations document the physical and mental health effects of trauma endured by asylum-seekers and are subsequently used as an informative document in their asylum claims. During my first year, I also served a student leader in other student organizations, such as the Co-Community Engagement Director for the Health Equity Scholar’s Program (HESP).
During my third year of medical school, I wanted to further explore the role of advocacy at the intersection of clinical care and research. I applied for an internship position with Physicians for Human Rights. As a Medical Student Intern, I helped develop and implement a research project to evaluate the mental health impact of family separation and expulsion among asylum-seekers in Mexico. The experience, particularly interviewing asylum-seekers in Tijuana and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, granted a holistic picture of how the asylum process intersects with mental health. Our team then used these findings to generate a report for Physicians for Human Rights, titled “Neither Safety Nor Health: How Title 42 Expulsions Harm Health and Violate Rights.” This report was used to guide key advocacy efforts, such as in the creation of a letter to the CDC – signed by 1,383 medical professionals – requesting that the CDC reverse the Title 42 expulsions order at the US-Mexico Border. Our research was also referenced in recent media coverage by organizations such as Amnesty International, Mother Jones, and more. This opportunity was made possible through Michigan Medicine’s unwavering support, ranging from the support of amazing faculty, such as Dr. Michelle Heisler, to funding for the project via the Capstone For Impact Project grant.
Now, I am a fourth-year medical student applying to psychiatry residency. In the future, I hope to serve as a psychiatrist who advocates on behalf of immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers. Pursuing training at Michigan Medicine fostered my interest in pursuing justice in the field of mental health. The opportunity to pursue such a diverse array of electives during my M3 and M4 year was critical in allowing me to get “on the ground” experience. Furthermore, having incredible mentors who supported my vision for advocacy – such as Dr. Michele Heisler — was critical in my success. I truly believe that pursuing my medical education at the University of Michigan granted me the skills and vision to serve as an effective advocate.
Alana Slavin is a fourth-year medical student at the University of Michigan Medical School. In May 2021, Alana served as a Student Intern for Physicians for Human Rights (PHR), during which she participated in research on the impact of family separation and expulsion on mental health outcomes of asylum-seekers at the US-Mexico border. She can be followed on Twitter @alana_slavin.