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YSPH alums keep plight of African students in Ukraine in spotlight

October 25, 2023
by Fran Fried

Trio to screen their documentary at APHA Annual Meeting

One of the early storylines of Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine was the plight of, and discrimination against, thousands of African college students fleeing to Ukraine’s western border, seeking refuge in another country. The story has long cycled out of the news, but three recent Yale School of Public Health graduates have ensured that a spotlight still shines on their stories.

Chidum Okeke, MPH ’23 (health care management), Mukund Desibhatla, MPH ’23 (chronic disease epidemiology, maternal child health), and Dr. Kelvin Amenyedor, MD, MPH ’23 (global health) created “African Wave: Voices Amidst Conflict Caught in the Crossfire of the Russian-Ukrainian War” for a class last spring. They submitted it at the last minute to the American Public Health Association’s (APHA) Film Festival, and – to their amazement – saw it accepted. It will be screened November 9 in a short films program ahead of the APHA Annual Meeting and Expo, which takes place November 12-15 in Atlanta.

“I was genuinely surprised” at being accepted, Okeke said. “It was an immense honor to be acknowledged among seasoned filmmakers who have been in the industry for decades. To see our work featured alongside well-established names in the field felt surreal. More importantly, though, I was deeply humbled by the fact that the committee believed our story was worth showcasing to audiences nationwide.”

The half-hour film was a project for their Humanities, Arts, and Public Health class, taught by Judith Lichtman, Susan Dwight Bliss Professor and chair of the Department of Chronic Disease Epidemiology and director of the H.A.P.P.Y. (Humanities, Arts, and Public Health Practice) Initiative.

Students had to create an arts- or humanities-inspired public health intervention or story on a specific health project of their choice, justify it based on scientific data, engage stakeholders related to the topic, and propose actional steps to address the public health issue. Throughout the semester, as the project took shape, Lichtman said, the students received interim tasks and constructive feedback from her and fellow instructor Dr. Neal Baer, MD – a lecturer in chronic disease epidemiology and an award-winning television showrunner and producer – as well as classmates.

I saw more than just news stories; I saw my brothers and sisters. I felt their aspirations, their fears, and their hope, echoing the sentiments of countless Africans who venture beyond our shores seeking education and brighter prospects.

Dr. Kelvin Amenyedor, MD, MPH '23

The trio was inspired by the work of fellow Class of ’23 graduate Nassim Ashford (social and behavioral sciences). Ashford co-founded the humanitarian organization NoirUnited International with Macire Aribot in 2020, and they raised $125,000 last year to provide for the African students’ necessities, advocate for extensions of their refugee status, and help them continue their education.

The pair also traveled to Ukraine to meet with and interview some of the students about their ordeal – the sudden uprooting from their studies; the scramble to reach the safety of Ukraine’s western border; and the discrimination they said they encountered, in the form of abuse and humiliation, from officials in Poland. Ashford’s videos of some of the interviews formed the foundation of “African Wave.” Okeke said Ashford provided six hours of interview videos, as well as “a treasure-trove of narratives that could have easily filled a library.”

NoirUnited International’s work in Ukraine wasn’t Desibhatla’s only inspiration. Another of his professors, Kaveh Khoshnood, PhD ’95, MPH ’89, associate professor of epidemiology (microbial diseases), co-founder of the Yale Violence and Health Study Group, and faculty director of the YSPH Humanitarian Research Lab, conducts research on the physical and mental health impacts of humanitarian crises. In February, on the day before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, Khoshnood and Nathaniel Raymond, executive director of the Humanitarian Research Lab and a lecturer in epidemiology (microbial diseases), presented their findings on potential Russian war crimes and crimes against humanity at the United Nations.

“There was a story to be told,” said Desibhatla, a Horstmann Scholar. “I understood from Nassim’s advocacy that despite ongoing relief efforts, there was a large disparity in access to health care, housing, and food among Black students. I began to connect the dots – highlighting Nassim’s work, Dr. Khoshnood’s expertise, and various interviews could convey a powerful message about the resilience of African refugees.”

Amenyedor, a research officer at Yale University and also a Horstmann Scholar, was born and raised in Ghana, so the Ukrainian students’ stories had a profound and personal effect on him.

“I saw more than just news stories; I saw my brothers and sisters,” he said. “I felt their aspirations, their fears, and their hope, echoing the sentiments of countless Africans who venture beyond our shores seeking education and brighter prospects. It became clear that merely being aware of their predicament was not enough. As someone privileged to be in a position to create, I felt an overwhelming responsibility to amplify their voices.”

Part of the urgency in finishing and submitting the film for APHA was deadline pressure. While they were able to give a presentation to the class, their documentary wasn’t nearly completed.

“Around the time of our final presentation [about the film] for class, I received an email about APHA’s short film festival,” Desibhatla said. “It was good timing and seemed like a wonderful opportunity to spread our message beyond the YSPH community.”

The deadline was early June, which gave the trio two weeks to send a completed video to APHA. At that point, Amenyedor said, just 10% of the film was complete. They dove deeply and quickly into the project – and also had to create a comprehensive abstract and adhere to festival guidelines.

Okeke spent every day editing the interviews and creating original animation and pulled an all-nighter the day of deadline. Desibhatla and Amenyedor worked on narration rewrites and fact-checking to weave every story together. “On top of an already stressful and stringent deadline,” Desibhatla said, “we were coordinating the project from different time zones.” And after all that work, they thought they had missed the deadline.

He and his family were leaving temple services in Cleveland that evening when he received an email from Okeke; it was a Dropbox file of the finished film. Desibhatla immediately urged his family to head back to the hotel, an hour away, so he could log onto its wi-fi and check the progress as the film was being submitted to APHA.

“Once I reached the hotel around 11 p.m. [EDT], I logged onto the wi-fi and saw a daunting five-hour estimate for the upload,” he said. However, “Feeling devastated despite all of the effort, we proceeded” with the download. Our submission time was 1:14 a.m. [EDT]. It was not until I checked that the deadline was 12 a.m. PST [3 a.m. EDT] that we realized that we actually made it – with more than 30 minutes to spare.”

The trio is pleased with the finished film – which Desibhatla said is not just a story of discrimination. Amenyedor wrote a song for the film with the refrain “We never give up.”

“For me, Kelvin’s song is the most powerful moment. It shifts the entire tone of the film,” Desibhatla said. “Instead of a story about victims, we are looking at a story about survivors with an admirable amount of hope and resilience. I think of “African Wave” as a call to action for global leaders to come together and strengthen support systems for these students.”

Lichtman, meanwhile, was impressed with the project.

“It was exciting to see their creative and original idea take shape in such an informative and impressive short film,” she said. “They exemplified the value of engaging the arts to tell high-impact stories that can raise our awareness of important public health issues and provide actionable steps to change the health of communities.”

Submitted by Fran Fried on October 23, 2023