First-ever MasonWHO Conference brings students together to discuss refugee health

(Photo credit: Donna Imadi/Fourth Estate)

This story was originally published in the April 18 issue of Fourth Estate.

Over 100 students from Mason and neighboring universities were invited to Mason last weekend to participate in the university’s first-ever Model World Health Organization Conference to analyze and contribute ideas on how to improve medical care for displaced refugees.

Sophomore Sameen Yusuf was the executive director of MasonWHO 2016, as well as the cofounder and president of MedX, the student-run global health society at Mason that helped coordinate the event.

Yusuf said that she and Zeinab Safi, the delegate resource coordinator for MasonWHO, got the idea for the conference after discovering the American Mock World Health Organization Conference, a similar event that took place in 2015 in North Carolina. After stumbling across this event, Yusuf said she realized she and her team at MedX could put together something similar for universities in the D.C. area.

With the genesis of a conference in her mind, Yusuf said she and her team “really started working on seeing how students at Mason are interested in being involved with global health policies and international development.” They found that “though there are clearly very intelligent and engaged people here on campus … we don’t always meet [to discuss these issues].”

That was when Yusuf started garnering support from various organizations and departments at Mason.

“Seven organizations, three different departments, and four different grants [went into] this one [conference],” marking an unprecedented level of support for such a new concept.

However, for as hard as the process of lobbying support for the event was, Yusuf said that finding other people who shared her passion for global health was one of the most rewarding parts of putting the conference together.

“Everyone told me that having a group of eight people would be really difficult and there would always be one person lagging behind, but I’ve never been so proud of a group of people in my life,” Yusuf said of the team that organized the conference.

In fact, Yusuf said she found more support for her idea than she anticipated she would.

“Initially, when I started this project, I thought of it as being a bi-annual event. … But it seems like there’s a lot of interest in this being a yearly thing. The Global Health Department’s chair was super elated, and he wanted to basically make it a Global Health Department-sponsored event,” Yusuf said.

However, while she is thrilled to see so much support for the event she helped create, Yusuf said that she would prefer the event to take place every two years. She said she believes that giving the event more time to develop will allow students to make it the best it can be.

In choosing a theme for this year’s conference, Yusuf said there were many possibilities, but she and her team eventually settled on “refugee health.”

“The reason [we] chose refugee health is that I saw a lot of activism on campus for refugees, but we never talk about their health care,” Yusuf said.

Yusuf said she believed that by choosing refugee health as the topic for the conference, she could encourage students to think about recent refugee crises, such as the one in Syria, in a different light. While people often talk about “necessities like food, water and shelter, health care is such an integral part of [the refugee crisis],” Yusuf said.

In addition, Yusuf believes that refugee health is a topic that lends itself well to a multidisciplinary approach, which is one of the core tenets of Mason WHO. Yusuf said in a letter to delegates that “MasonWHO is the product of a campus-wide demand for initiatives that allow us to analyze and contribute our ideas on current global issues and conflicts.”

Yusuf was not the only one satisfied with the multidisciplinary approach of the conference. Asha Athman, a theme director for the event as well as the chair for its mock Health Technologies Humanitarian Emergencies community, said “to see majors from bioengineers to global affairs collaborating to try to find solutions to a common goal is one of the most positive aspects of the WHO Conference.”

Alex Hanon, an economics and government major who attended the conference, also came away from the event seeing the multidisciplinary approach as a plus.

“I really like going to these simulations because [they] give you a kind of cool insight into how real world institutions work,” Hanon said. “From the first day of the conference, I see that not everyone has the same way in which they approach the conference, whether it be through speaking style or goals of the conference, so it’s just a really nice learning experience to learn other people’s viewpoints in how to do a simulation and how to see how global institutions work.”

In encouraging students across disciplines to bring unique ideas to the table, Hanon believed the conference became more than the sum of its parts.

However, Hanon also said that the event has room to grow, such as by improving its structure and giving delegates a better idea prior to the conference of what their roles would entail.

Above all else, Yusuf hopes that MasonWHO shows students that they have the ability to enact positive change.

“I really hope that people see that if they just take that one stop to voice their opinion, that they can see how powerful that is. And I hope that people also see that nothing can be done on their own. We all really have to work together to see any kind of change.”