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Gillings School Students on the Front Lines of Humanitarian Health

June 1, 2021
Gillings School of Global Public Health
outside view of the Gillings School of Public Health

Gillings School of Global Public Health The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

The UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health launched the Humanitarian Health Initiative (HHI) to leverage the School’s global health expertise in support of humanitarian efforts around the world. A new series of internships tapped students to contribute to HHI efforts. Led by Sheila Leatherman, professor of global health policy and Gillings global advisor, the HHI responds to a growing need, as fragile health systems, conflict and violence threaten the health of more than two billion people globally.

Under the HHI, faculty members have been working in several countries — to lead humanitarian-related programs at multilateral organizations, advise national governments, research key threats and possible remediation interventions, and provide on-the-ground technical support.

With donor support, the HHI launched a new series of internships that pair current students with faculty experts in the School’s Research, Innovation and Global Solutions office, giving the students firsthand experience applying their public health training where it can be of maximum impact. Four internships were offered during the 2020–2021 school year, and these four students jumped into humanitarian work, despite the COVID-19 pandemic. They supported humanitarian organizations, increased our understanding of maternal health issues and sought to improve access to effective healthcare in fragile settings.

Lein Soltan is seeking a master of public health degree in global health. She worked with Aunchalee Palmquist, an assistant professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health at Gillings and an affiliate of the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute, and an interdisciplinary research team based in Iraq to examine the perinatal and postpartum experiences of internally displaced Yazidi women in Iraq.

“My interests in humanitarian health are largely inspired by my own experience as a Palestinian American,” said Soltan. “My family came to the United States in 1990 as Palestinian refugees fleeing the Gulf War in Kuwait. The more I learned about my family history of repeated displacement and dispossession, the more compelled I became to do something about it.”

Doreen Ankamah is an master of public health candidate in maternal child health. Working with Dilshad Jaff, Gillings Humanitarian Fellow as well as an adjunct associate professor in the Department of Maternal and Child Health, and Leatherman, he assisting in the identification of evidence-based interventions that are effective and feasible within the South Sudan context to improve access, safety and effectiveness of healthcare.

“The internship has provided me a hands-on opportunity to work in a real-world humanitarian setting thereby better appreciating the challenges and emerging problems faced not only by displaced populations but humanitarian actors as well,” said Ankamah, who practiced as a physician in Ghana before seeking a master’s in publich health.

Katerina Pattee is a master of public health candidate in global health. She works with Leatherman in conjunction with a nongovernmental organization in Syria.

“I studied comparative healthcare systems in Northern Europe and Scandinavia in college while living in Copenhagen, and I saw the model of universal healthcare in action,” said Pattee. “That idea that everyone deserves quality healthcare despite citizen status or socioeconomic capabilities stuck with me.”

Maggie Holly is a Ph.D. candidate in health policy and management. Maggie works with Leatherman on various humanitarian health projects.

“I have learned an incredible amount as an intern. The opportunity to sit in on meetings, work with global partners and learn from Sheila’s expertise has helped me grow as a professional,” said Holly.

The COVID-19 pandemic, and resulting global recession, threaten to worsen growing humanitarian crises. According to projections, more than 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021. In response, Gillings School faculty and students are conducting research; building capacity and providing technical support to countries and nongovernmental organizations; conducting engagement and service projects; and advocating improved public health policy and practice.

More must be done, individually and collectively, and the HHI represents an important commitment to deploy expertise at UNC-Chapel Hill. These internships place Gillings School students in the position to help immediately and build their experience for the future.

Student internships with the HHI are made possible by generous gifts from several members of the Gillings community: Leah Devlin, DD.S. ’79, M.P.H. ’84; Subhash Gumber, M.D., Ph.D.; Donald Holzworth, M.S.; Sheila Leatherman, Benjamin Meier, J.D., LL.M., Ph.D.; Louise Winstanly, MS; and Derek Winstanly, MBChB.

Read the full interviews.

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