Ifrah Magan, AM '11

Building sustainable programs that recognize the human dignity of refugess around the world

Ifrah Magan

Aware of the difficult path refugees have to follow in building new lives in the United States, Ifrah Magan, AM '11, worked to find opportunities to make the transition easier.

As a master's student at the University of Chicago Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice, she completed her second-year field placement at the Heartland Alliance for Human Needs & Human Rights. The Heartland Alliance helps people, whether those living in poverty or those fleeing violence in their home countries, to realize their human dignity.

Ifrah's dedication to the refugee community in Chicago inspired her to apply for fellowships that would allow her to provide enhanced services while still in school. This dedication earned her two prestigious fellowships: one of 100 Kathryn Wasserman Davis Projects for Peace and one of 250 annual Albert Schweitzer Fellowships.

Wanting to encourage motivated young people to create their own ideas for building peace, Davis, an anthropologist and political scientist, established the awards in place at more than 90 campuses and 12 International Houses around the world.

The Schweitzer Fellowships hope to develop individuals who are dedicated and skilled in addressing the health needs of underserved communities, and whose example influences and inspires others. The city of Chicago is one of 12 U.S. sites administering the annual grants.

Ifrah's Davis Project for Peace award allowed her to conduct peace workshops, establish literacy groups and set up a library for refugees, all work she did during summer 2010.

In doing literacy workshops, Ifrah said she learned that there is a need for both more research and more interaction with refugees. "Refugees need more classes to help them learn the vocabulary. They need to understand the need to read and how books can help improve their language skills."

To help refugees continue their studies, she used part of the grant to create a library with books and educational materials as well as English as a Second Language resources.

When she presented her series of six peace workshops as the third component of her Davis Peace Project, Ifrah said she was fascinated to see how interested people were in each other's culture, whether they were from Guatemala, Nepal, Sudan or Iraq. "Refugees need the opportunity to talk about their traditions and cultures as part of being accepted as human beings, not just refugees. Refugees are from all walks of life, yet they all go through the same experiences."

In her second-year placement, she worked with the Refugees and Immigrant Community Services department with Heartland Alliance's Heartland Human Care Services.

Ifrah was also a student in Crown Family School's Graduate Program in Health Administration and Policy (GPHAP), an interdisciplinary program that draws students from the Booth School of Business, the Harris School of Public Policy Studies, and the Crown Family School of Social Work, Policy, and Practice. As a result of her personal experiences and her first-year placement, Ifrah also saw a need for better health awareness. Through her Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, she is devoting one year to work with Heartland's refugee health programs to promote healthy lifestyles to refugees.

"Health is important to well-being and refugees are underrepresented when it come to health care. They are dealing with cultural and language barriers as well as changes in diet and in the weather."

Herself a refugee, Ifrah and her family left Somalia when she was three. The family lived in Egypt for ten years before moving to the United States. The family -- Ifrah, her parents, and siblings -- were settled in Michigan.

Charna Epstein, former director of the resettlement program at Heartland Human Care Services, Inc., a partner of Heartland Alliance, oversaw the area that encompasses refugee resettlement work and supervised Ifrah's work. Epstein is a 2005 alumna of Crown Family School's master's program and she completed a master of science (2009) in Threat and Response Management from the Graham School of General Studies. Both degrees are important as Charna oversees local disaster recovery work as well as other emergency work with refugees and immigrants

"Ifrah came up with an ambitious plan and clear vision on how to do an innovative program with refugees through the Davis Peace Project," said Charna. "You rarely see people who have the ability to get down to ground level and accomplish what needs to be done while still seeing things from a macro level. She has extraordinary dedication to this population, being able to use her own experience but not let her personal filter get in the way of understanding the needs of others. I am most impressed with her and what she has accomplished."

While attending Michigan State University, Ifrah was selected as a Ronald E. McNair Scholar, a program that brought her to Chicago to learn about graduate schools. She selected the Crown Family School because of the friendly atmosphere, the commitment of Crown Family School faculty to the profession and the school's commitment to providing work experiences for students.

"The Crown Family School offers a unique combination of social work theory and practice. For me, the Crown Family School provides students with the ability to learn not just in the classroom but in the community," she said.

During her first-year placement, also at Heartland Alliance, she worked with employment services. "I helped participants with practice interview questions, job applications and resume building. This year my focus is more on outreach and advocacy work," she noted. Both years at Heartland Alliance have shown her that adequate funding is key for programs to help refugees.

"Although we focus on work, we are also concerned with school and family. Women tend not to come to the programs because of the lack of childcare assistance." She sees a need for early childhood education programs that would allow refugee women to work and attend school.

In her second year, she said, "I'm learning more about the structure of things. I am working more on alliances and partnerships. I hope to learn how grants work and spend time on grant writing while learning more about policies affecting refugees."

She has learned that there is not a lot of work done on the refugee community. "Part of my job is to do outreach, linking to other community organizations as well as Islamic and Arabic associations. Being Muslim and knowing the needs of the community, I hoping to raise awareness in the Muslim community on the issues facing refugees."

Her experiences at Heartland and in her personal life have made her think about unanswered questions that she believes need research: What is the role of resettlement agencies and community organizations in meeting the needs of refugee populations? How can we provide an easier adjustment for people with different backgrounds and perspectives? What is the role of parents, the community, and support networks?

Ifrah hopes to continue her academic focus on issues facing refugees by pursuing a doctoral degree. She hopes to conduct research on refugee populations. She gives high marks to the preparation, support and encouragement she has received from Crown Family School faculty as well as her peers, noting that together these groups comprise critical leadership in developing social services policies.

"I am committed to research to gain the skills and knowledge needed to push for programs that build understanding of how work, health and family life are all integrated," she said. "We need to develop long-term support by partnering to see what's best for the individuals and families as there is a critical need for sustainable programs that recognize the human dignity of each refugee."