The University Record, October 22, 2001

Student helps Afghan refugees document health conditions

By Colleen Newvine
News and Information Services

Graduate student Serena Chaudhry plans to present photos depicting the health conditions of Afghan refugees, taken by the refugees themselves, at the American Public Health Association’s annual convention in Atlanta Oct. 24.

Chaudhry, working toward both her master’s of public health and master’s in social work degrees, traveled to Pakistan this summer for an internship with the International Catholic Migration Commission. She applied a previous interest in the health and relocation issues of immigrants and refugees to work at the Jalozai camp in Pakistan, near the border of Afghanistan.

Chaudhry also went to Pakistan hoping to use techniques she’d learned from Caroline Wang, assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the School of Public Health. Wang’s Photovoice ( www.photovoice.com) provides cameras to people in a variety of situations, from the villages of rural China to the homeless shelter of Ann Arbor, to act as recorders of their environment, and potential catalysts for social action and change.

With help from a local interpreter, Chaudhry recruited eight refugees and taught them about the project, including how the point-and-shoot cameras worked and how to capture their health and living condition in photographs. She asked them to look for the strengths and weaknesses of the camp within the context of health, and to explain why each picture fulfilled that assignment.

In their eight rolls of film, the refugees told stories of inadequate water and sanitation, of the close living quarters of some 50,000 refugees making for easy transmission of communicable diseases, of the bond with block leaders within the camp, and of the benefits of the few green spaces in the camp.

Chaudhry returned to campus in late August with hopes of mounting a photo exhibit to increase awareness of the refugees’ needs and to raise funds to help them.

“Two weeks later, the world changed,” she says. “I wasn’t sure how to use this in the context of Sept. 11. The relevance is just much greater.”

With support from Doctors Without Borders, a 30-year-old organization that delivers emergency aid to victims of armed conflict, epidemics, and natural and man-made disasters, Chaudhry created a Web display of the pictures, available online at www.doctorswithoutborders.org/.

Chaudhry was sensitive about not wanting to exploit people who already have suffered so much and who already have been frequently photographed by journalists, but felt the photos are far more powerful and informative than what Westerners might otherwise see, since they were taken by peers, with explanations given in their native language.