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KU School of Medicine-Wichita students help refugees understand U.S. health care

Medical students have teamed up with the International Rescue Committee to provide health education classes for refugees, aiding in their resettlement.

Medical students talk to a group of refugees at the local International Rescue Committee
Joud Zakhour, M.D., internal medicine resident physician, and third-year medical students Maggie Malmberg and Hassan Zbeeb discuss health topics with Syrian refugees. Malmberg was the lead developer of the presentation outline for the KU Community Health Alliance-Wichita. (Courtesy photos)

Imagine you’ve sought refuge in another country and don’t have a clue about what health dangers might be lurking in your new environment and where to go for medicine or to see a doctor.

Thanks to a new partnership between the student-led KU Community Health Alliance-Wichita and the local International Rescue Committee, refugees who are coming to Wichita in unprecedented numbers can get some important information on healthy living and health care access. That information, according to the U.S. government, can contribute to their successful resettlement.

This fall, CHA-W launched a series of health education classes for refugees. It’s already conducted two sessions, one for Ukrainian refugees and one for Syrian refugees.

“We are doing one country at a time as we must have an interpreter available for each,” said Hassan Zbeeb, a third-year medical student at KU School of Medicine-Wichita who helped found CHA-W and serves as its director of communications.

“Our first course covered various basic infectious disease and first aid topics. Fever, cold, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, sunburns — what could be treated at home and when to see a doctor or go to the ER. What kind of (over-the-counter) medications can you use? What needs a prescription? What if a snake bites you? A mosquito? A tick? What kinds of spiders are dangerous? What about local plants? We think these questions are relevant since answers to them will vary based on where you are in the world.”

Eventually CHA-W will develop more courses, covering topics such as common chronic health conditions in the U.S. and the basics of the U.S. health care system, Zbeeb added.

Physicians with the Department of Pediatrics at KU School of Medicine-Wichita supervise the presentations, which are made by CHA-W members.

A continuation of community service

The new health education classes seemed like a natural progression for CHA-W members and other medical students to get involved in, said Zbeeb, an alumnus of Wichita Northeast High School and Wichita State University who started volunteering with the IRC in fall 2021 for a couple of reasons.

Since he has extended family in Lebanon, he’s always been “attuned to international events,” Zbeeb said, so he was aware of crises that have forced people to flee their home countries, like civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan when the Taliban took over and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Plus, he has always loved giving back through community service.

Eventually that love led him to help start the CHA student interest group in Wichita. A CHA group already existed at KU School of Medicine in Kansas City, and it was started by Karam Hamada, now a fourth-year student at KU School of Medicine-Wichita.

Zbeeb got CHA-W involved in volunteering for the IRC, after seeing the large influx of Afghan refugees in early 2022 and hearing from fellow students who were encountering new refugees during rotations at HealthCore Clinic — a safety net clinic in northeast Wichita — and even the airport.

“I established this relationship … so KU students and community doctors can lend assistance and can gain a better understanding of the global, political, social and cultural forces that impact this (newcomer) community … and to perhaps fulfill their passions of international medicine but here at home,” Zbeeb said.

Up until now, CHA-W members and other medical students have been helping refugees resettle in Wichita through other volunteer efforts, like getting moved into housing, providing transportation from school and doctor appointments, and navigating grocery stores, Zbeeb explained. Those activities continue.

Students also were part of a World Refugee Day “Health Without Borders” fair in June, playing in a soccer tournament alongside refugees, and setting up a booth with information and services.

Rising numbers, rising needs

While the IRC was created in 1933 to help refugees fleeing their homes due to persecution or war, the IRC didn’t establish a Wichita office until 2011. In 2021, Wichita’s IRC expanded into a much larger facility in downtown Wichita and increased its staff to accommodate the rising numbers of refugees settling in Wichita.

It now has more than 90 employees who serve approximately 2,000 refugees and immigrants, according to IRC Wichita volunteer coordinator Viviana Macedo-Cabreles.

During this past fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, the Wichita IRC helped resettle 495 refugees, with the majority coming from the DRC. The remaining refugees are from Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Namibia, Afghanistan and Syria.

That number doesn’t include immigrants from Ukraine and some other countries, Macedo-Cabreles noted. While often considered refugees, they have a different immigration status by U.S. government standards.

CHA-W’s health education classes are part of the IRC’s refugee health promotion program, which helps refugees understand the U.S. health care system and improve their health outcomes, according to Samuel Paunetto-Rivera, IRC's health and wellness coordinator.

As part of the program, Paunetto-Rivera offers cultural competence/humility and anti-racism training for area health care practitioners, social work practicum students at WSU and KU School of Medicine-Wichita medical students.

At KU School of Medicine-Wichita, the program has partnered with pediatrics faculty member Paul Uhlig, M.D., to offer the training every two months to Uhlig’s students.

Students stand for a photo together around a table

During their pediatrics clerkship, KU School of Medicine-Wichita students participated in a workshop facilitated by Samuel Paunetto-Rivera, health and wellness coordinator for the International Rescue Committee.

KU School of Medicine-Wichita