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YSPH Alumni Rekindle Old Friendships at Annual Reunion, Consider Public Health Challenges Associated with Forced Migrations

November 18, 2016
by Jennifer Kaylin

Conflict and violence, and the ensuing global mass migration that follows, are the “calling of our time” and require a sustained public health response to alleviate human suffering and disease, said Neal Keny-Guyer, chief executive officer of the global humanitarian organization Mercy Corps.

“I’m an optimist. I wouldn’t be doing this if I weren’t,” Keny-Guyer said during his keynote speech at the Yale School of Public Health’s Alumni Day 2016, held November 4 at the New Haven Lawn Club. The day’s theme was Violent Conflict and Forced Migration: Public Health and the Call to Action.

Keny-Guyer said a widespread sense of “grievance and social exclusion” is the main reason terrorism and violence is on the rise. The solution is a focus on good governance, he said. “We’re living a tale of two worlds. One world is healthy, wealthy and wise. Technological progress seems to know no bounds.” But eight or nine years ago, another story began to emerge, one of unprecedented conflict and crisis. Large numbers of people have been forced to flee their homes and countries for their personal safety.

Keny-Guyer said there’s been a worldwide rise in populism, nativism and nationalism. The solution, he believes, is supporting good governance, as the “cornerstone for promoting just and peaceful societies.” He said that less than 1 percent of all aid dollars go to strengthening local governance. “We need to encourage all groups to see a common future together. Peace is too important to be left to the diplomats. We have to try.”

YSPH Associate Professor Kaveh Khoshnood, Ph.D. ’95, M.P.H. ’89, who moderated a panel discussion on the public health response to the immigration crisis, introduced Keny-Guyer as a man with a “passion for peace” who has lived and worked in some of the most challenging settings in the world.

Khoshnood also reflected on his personal experience with immigration. As a teenager growing up in Tehran, Iran, Khoshnood said that he left his home before being drafted into a war with neighboring Iraq that “I didn’t believe in.” With his family’s support, he was able to migrate to the United States and settle in Florida. “So I understand some of the gut-wrenching decisions families make.”

Khoshnood quoted Warsan Shire, a Somali-British writer and poet: “Nobody puts their children in a boat unless the water is safer than the land.”

This year’s Alumni Day began with YSPH Dean Paul Cleary’s state of the school address. Cleary, who has served two, five-year terms as dean, will step down on Feb 1 and be succeeded by Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., a pediatrician and a distinguished scholar in global health and HIV prevention.

Cleary told the gathering that Vermund is “an incredibly accomplished guy” and that he (Cleary) couldn’t think of a better person for the job. As for the school, Cleary said it’s in “great shape.” He said he devoted a lot of energy into branding the school as a “strong and vibrant school of public health.” Under his stewardship, an ambitious sustainability plan was enacted. “It’s part of our DNA at this point,” Cleary said. He also discussed the growth in distance learning and continuing education and the growth in endowed funds.

Panelist Chris George, executive director of the New Haven-based Integrated Refugee and Immigrant Services (IRIS), said the hardest way to get into the United States is to be vetted by the government for admission. “The U.S. government selects refugees based on their needs. It’s like an interrogation.” He said there are 350 refugee resettlement agencies across the country to help immigrants learn the language, find a place to live, enroll their children in school, and find jobs. Helping immigrants, he said, “is the most noble national tradition we have.”

Faces were put to the refugee crisis with the appearance of two IRIS clients, a Syrian couple who through an interpreter described the experience of moving to New Haven with their children.

When applying for asylum, they waited two and a half years for an application to be processed and then another three and a half years to get a Green Card. “You don't fight with weapons,” the man said. “You fight with words.”

His wife said that learning a new language was “the most difficult barrier” to adjusting to their new life. She said the support they received from the refugee community in New Haven was enormously helpful. At a recent Halloween party, everybody started saying “Happy Halloween! Happy Halloween! I knew I was learning American culture and customs.”

Aniyizhai Annamalai, M.D., director of the Adult Refugee Clinic at the Yale School of Medicine, said her clinic treats many patients for post-traumatic stress disorder. “But we also help refugees with many other physical, mental and chronic illnesses,” she said.

The third panelist, Unni Karunakara, M.B.B.S., M.P.H. ’95, former international president of Doctors Without Borders and currently a senior fellow at Yale’s Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, told the audience “You have to appreciate the full arc of the refugee experience. There’s a lot we need to understand, and it has to be fact based, not fear based.” Karunakara said the world needs to share the refugee burden. “There is a global responsibility, with enough blame to go around,” he said.

Any good school of public health “has to be activist,” Karunakara said. “It’s not just about working in a lab someplace.” The school must be “engaged with the community, willing to take positions and be present in discussions that affect our lives today.”

Tassos Kyriakides, Ph.D., president of Association of Yale Alumni in Public Health, said the experiences of the Syrian couple was a special moment in an excellent and timely discussion.

“Listening to the Syrian guests at this year’s alumni day was an extremely humbling yet powerful moment! These two amazing people from a beautiful country spoke freely, with passion and excitement but yet you could sense the fear of the unknown, the uncertainty of what is next, the newness of their adoptive country,” Kyriakides said. “I was so moved as they both showed in their own way, without uttering any more words, their appreciation of what they have been offered here. Their eyes said it all: ‘Thank you.’”

The event also featured the artwork of the Syrian artist and architect Mohamed Hafez. His powerful three-dimensional streetscapes, made from found objects, such as scrap metal, movingly conveyed both the devastation of war and the strength of the human spirit.

Awards were presented by James Hadler, M.P.H. ’82, to two alumni the night before the Alumni Day program. Anne Prestipino, M.P.H. ’80, received the Distinguished Alumni Award, and Ruchit Nagar, M.P.H. ’16, received the Eric W. Mood New Professionals Award.

Prestipino, who spoke at the Alumni Day event, said her greatest challenge as a health care administrator came when two bombs went off at the Boston Marathon , on April 15, 2013. She said she drew repeatedly on the training she received at the Yale School of Public Health to successfully deploy her staff and resources to get through that catastrophic event.

The Yale School of Public Health has more than 4,500 alumni who live in some 70 countries throughout the world and are engaged is virtually every aspect of public health.

Submitted by Denise Meyer on November 18, 2016