University of Iowa graduate studying health of refugees in Jordan

Tala Al-Rousan hopes to inform policymaking in host countries

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A native of Jordan, Tala Al-Rousan attended medical school in Cairo, Egypt, later traveling across the Middle East and Africa to help citizens in war-torn countries as a member of Doctors Without Borders.

But it wasn’t until she was pursuing her master’s degree in public health at the University of Iowa from 2013 to 2015 that Al-Rousan said she was able to reflect on her work in researching the health of vulnerable populations.

Growing up in Jordan, Al-Rousan said she had always heard about immigrants from Middle Eastern countries seeking refuge in her home country. While Al-Rousan studied in Iowa, unrest in Yemen and the Syrian civil war pushed more refugees into Jordan. There are currently more than 650,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

“That’s where I developed a passion for studying refugee health,” Al-Rousan said about her time at UI. “But my program did not have a focus on global health. Global health is not just practicing health globally, but it’s also about studying the most vulnerable populations inside the U.S.

“I was working with my mentor, Dr. Robert Wallace, on issues like prisoners’ health. I was trying to get as close as possible to global health.”

That experience has since allowed her to become a Bernard Lown Scholar at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

For the last two years, Al-Rousan has traveled to Jordan every four months, studying the mental and physical health challenges refugees face.

The goal is that her research will inform laws for refugees in host countries, Al-Rousan said.

“The UN has declared the refugee crisis to be one of the worst humanitarian crises in our era,” she said. “Countries who are hosting large numbers of refugees, like my home country, have limited resources. Things have not been very promising. Humanitarian aid to those countries are not prevalent or not given on a regular basis and are very dependent on what is happening in the media.”

And the health challenges refugees face are numerous, Al-Rousan said.

Only about 15 percent of refugees live inside camps in Jordan, Al-Rousan said. It’s clear that those living in camps face struggles with mental health and the restriction from seeking advancements through education and employment opportunities.

“Those people are like prisoners, really,” she said. “They can’t get out and can’t communicate with many people outside. Their horizons are very limited. Child marriage is becoming very common inside camps.”

Many living outside refugee camps were able to bring more financial savings, have more education and employment opportunities and are often more literate, Al-Rousan said. But it is harder for them to access physical health programs.

“Disparities in health are larger among refugees living outside camps,” she said. “Those are the ones that are harder to locate and offer services to.”

Al-Rousan said she also plans to focus on the challenges refugee women face.

“They are now becoming breadwinners after they lost their husbands during war,” she said. “What we’re doing is empowering them and working on general well-being and mental health. Those are the mothers of future generations which we are hoping won’t choose extremism, but rather be empowered in their new society.”

Al-Rousan has worked with Jordanian donors and advised the Ministry of Health in Jordan on her findings. Staff from Jordanian governmental departments visited with Al-Rousan to work on collaboration to train Jordan’s future medical students on refugee health. And Al-Rousan has traveled back to the UI to speak about her work.

“The situation is really sad on so many levels, but I’m optimistic about the flexibility of the policy of those governments,” Al-Rousan said. “It’s amazing that ... people do understand we’re living in a very globalized world. We are held accountable to what is happening all over the world.”

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