Post 2: Thoughtful Social Justice Work and Providing Tools for Self-Sufficiency


A wide variety of programs offered at the San Diego IRC office (source)

What I love about the Health: Science, Society and Policy program at Brandeis and the compliment it provides to the Biology program is that it allows me to think about both biomedicine and the sociological perspective of health. In the class Sociology of Health and Illness, I learned about the distinction of illness and disease, where a disease is the biological mechanism within the body causing symptoms while an illness is the symptoms and how the person experiencing them feels. A disease is seen and measured in a doctor’s office, while an illness is the lived experience and how a person manages the condition in their day-to-day life.

This distinction has guided my work with Intensive Case Management at IRC because I am focused on the day-to-day life of my clients and their lived experiences. While a client may have diabetes, I am not focusing on their blood sugar level or their insulin dosage; instead, I am focusing on making sure they have access to food, transportation to doctors appointments, and an interpreter to allow them to share concerns with their doctors. As someone focused on medicine at Brandeis, this has been slightly difficult for me because I am interested in the blood sugar numbers as a mechanism to allow me to understand what is going on in the client’s body to then dictate their treatment. What I would miss there would be that I am not thinking about the client’s lived experience and how they are managing their symptoms along with other trials of adjusting to a new country and way of life.

Refugee resettlement at IRC takes on a holistic approach by considering clients’ physical, emotional, and psychological needs during the resettlement process. The services during the first ninety days include multiple trips to the refugee health clinic for health screenings, signing up for health insurance, cash aid, food stamps, enrolling children in school, a cultural orientation, and finding and furnishing an apartment. While these services are required by the federal government, IRC goes beyond this by offering my program as well as an anti-trafficking program, and various employment programs to aid refugees in their transition to the U.S.

These extended programs and the IRC philosophy of “building programs that rebuild lives” works to do just that — help to build a better life for the whole person, not just medically. With their variety of programming, IRC is helping refugees and recognizing their many identities as parents, farmers, children, teachers, providers, and, most importantly, as human beings. It might be easier to sign people up for services and not teach them how to utilize those services and advocate for themselves, but IRC, like the sociological perspective of health and illness, recognizes that it is essential to focus on the lived experience and how to make the day-to-day events possible.

The proverb, “You can feed a man for a day by giving him a fish or feed him for a lifetime by teaching him to fish,” sums up the importance of helping people towards self-sufficiency. People, no matter what circumstances they have overcome, are still individuals and should be treated as such. In social justice work, it is important to refrain from grouping people into the category of “oppressed” and taking the stance of a “fixer” to fix all of the problems of the “oppressed group.” Providing resettled refugees with the tools and support to become self-sufficient and recognizing and celebrating their identities allows IRC to do social justice work in a thoughtful and holistic manner. IRC prioritizes these ideas while making a real difference in the lives of the individuals with whom they work.

– Maya

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