The problem can seem both hopeless and abstract. But on June 25, former refugee and current UAB graduate student Agok Ayuen will help the public get a taste of what it is like to live in a refugee camp — and how they can help refugees in Alabama and beyond right now.
Ayuen is nearing the end of training for her master’s degree in public health from the School of Public Health, with a concentration in maternal and child health policy and leadership. All that remains between her and graduation in December is a capstone course this fall and her internship this summer with the Alabama Interfaith Refugee Partnership, or ALIRP. The Birmingham-based nonprofit, launched in 2019, provides direct assistance and educational help for refugees in Alabama, as well as advocacy.
Immersive experience in Homewood Central Park
The World Refugee Day Simulation Event on June 25 includes two opportunities for an immersive experience in life at a refugee camp:
- 10 a.m.
- 1 p.m.
Each lasts about an hour. As of June 22, both simulation sessions are filled, but visitors can still learn about ALIRP's work and how to help refugees at the event.
Ayuen’s biggest project of the summer is ALIRP’s most high-profile event — the World Refugee Day Simulation Event on Saturday, June 25, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Homewood Central Park. “The goal is to help people feel what it is like to live in a refugee camp,” Ayuen said. Simulations, each lasting about an hour, will take place at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. (As of June 22, both simulation sessions are filled, but visitors can still learn about ALIRP's work and how to help refugees at the event.)
The event is ALIRP’s “coming-out party,” said Meredith Gartin, Ph.D., assistant professor of global health at UAB and a member of ALIRP’s board. “We are a relatively young organization, and COVID has meant that we have not been able to meet the community in person as we hoped. This is our chance to do that.”
The Refugee Simulation experience allows participants to get a feel for what it is like to arrive at a refugee camp seeking entry and, “in real-time, practice different actions and responses,” ALIRP’s website explains. But it is also customized to the participants. “All ages are open to participate,” Ayuen said. Participants receive packets assigning them a backstory and tasks that take them through medical, feeding and school units, isolation, and camp waiting areas. “For example, families will be directed to go to medical checkup, sign their kids up for school and be evaluated for any health conditions,” Ayuen said. “The goal is to help you understand that what refugees experience is not just on television, but something happening to real people all over the world.”
From South Sudan to Rock Island, USA
Ayuen and her family were some of those people. Her parents met in a refugee camp in Kenya, where both had fled from warfare in Sudan. Agok and her four siblings were born in the camp while her parents, like many refugees, were applying for asylum to countries around the world. “They applied for years, and were denied every time,” Ayuen said. Finally, when she was 7, her mother’s application was accepted by the United States and New Zealand. Her mother’s brother was already in the U.S., in Rock Island, Illinois, near the Iowa border, so that is where the family went. Agok and her siblings started going to school and learning English. By high school, she was aiming for a career in medicine and starring on her school’s track and cross-country teams.
“Growing up, I thought I was going to be a doctor,” she said. “I learned about health workers in the refugee camp, and I saw the help they gave to mothers and their children with nutrition and getting them adequate care. I wanted to be a pediatrician or an OB-GYN.” As an undergraduate at the University of Tennessee-Martin, Ayuen majored in biology and exercise science, with a concentration in public health. She also ran track and cross country, specializing in the 800 meters and the mile. “I discovered that I liked public health more than medicine,” she said. “I liked education and advocacy and prevention, and that is what is needed in Africa.” She started looking into schools with graduate programs in public health, and chose UAB. (She is a member of the Blazer track and cross-country teams, in addition to her studies.)
“Lots of ways to get involved”
Students in Gartin’s Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Health class, which is open to both undergraduates and graduate students, are “all highly motivated to take action,” Gartin said. (She is now developing a service-learning course focused on building capacity in refugee and asylum-seeker work.) It was Gartin’s own drive to help that led her to ALIRP. “We currently provide direct support to 61 individuals in 21 families who are asylum-seekers here in Jefferson County and Shelby County,” she said. “There are kids with their parents and unaccompanied minors as well. We help with homework and tutoring, deliver food, take people to the doctor, help them navigate community resources, among other services — there are lots of ways to get involved.”
Ayuen has not yet decided what she will do after graduation, but she is determined to be involved. “There are so many different ways you can go with a public health degree,” she said. “I want to go back to Africa and help people out the best that I can.”
Exploring a refugee camp through a child's eyes
Earlier in June, Ayuen helped to organize and participated in a panel discussion of the graphic novel "When Stars are Scattered,” about two young Somali boys growing up in a refugee camp in Kenya. Ayuen read the book in Gartin’s course, Immigrant, Migrant and Refugee Health. “It always goes over big with my students,” Gartin said. “It is an uplifting story, even though it is a sad circumstance.”
“I was able to relate to so much of it,” Ayuen said. “It spoke to a lot of the experiences I had, and the refugee camp the author was in was the neighboring camp to the one where I grew up. It goes into religion, health, maternal/child issues, and education. I know what it is like to be a refugee, but I also understand so much from the public health and maternal health realm” about the events in the book as well, she said.
The panel event was held Wednesday, June 1 — International Children’s Day — and co-sponsored by The Literacy Council of Central Alabama, UAB Institute for Human Rights, UAB Sparkman Center for Global Health, the Birmingham Islamic Society, and Helping Hand for Relief and Development.