A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

How Lean Funders Can Support Refugees and Displaced People

Suzanne Barakat speaking at TEDWomen 2016

Several years ago, I was honored to give the opening plenary, From Biases to Strengths, for Exponent Philanthropy’s 2018 National Conference. I stood before you and said,

“When we raise our collective voices and make courageous use of resources—that is when we stop the hate. That is when we advance our communities. And that is, ultimately, how the arc of the moral universe gets bent towards justice.”

So much has happened in our world, country and lives since that memorable event in Philadelphia. I am still raw with grief from having my brother, his wife and her sister gruesomely murdered in an anti-Muslim hate crime. Against the unimaginable backdrop of a global pandemic, Islamophobia is on the rise. At the same time, racist rhetoric and deeper inequities, violence and trauma among communities of color is increasing.

In these dark days, I am buoyed by the work that many of you are doing to support refugees and displaced people, human rights, and the needs of women and children. Similarly, the outpouring of aid for Afghan migrants seeking humanitarian relief is encouraging.

Supporting refugees and asylum seekers

The Health and Human Rights Initiative at UCSF (HHRI) offers care and support to individuals and families fleeing persecution and injustice. It provides:

  • Medical forensic evaluations for refugees and individuals seeking asylum
  • Medical and mental health support
  • Connections to community resources

In the past two years, HHRI gave 110 medical and psychological forensic evaluations for asylum seekers from 11 countries. To date, our asylum grant rate is 100%. We also train 30 – 40 medical students a year to become the next generation of health and human rights leaders. This includes advocating for immigrant, asylee and refugee communities; training others interested in this model; and conducting research to inform policy and practice.

Our clients come from as close as Central America and as far away as the Horn of Africa. Most are between the ages of 18 – 39. Many have experienced religious and political persecution, torture, and gang and interpersonal violence. Yet, their resilience and hope exceed all expectations. This inspires us to continue the work to welcome our neighbors with dignity.

Raising our collective voices

As we face the daily onslaught of difficult news, 2021 promises to be a year of growth for the Health and Human Rights Initiative. We launched a development campaign to expand our services, training, research and advocacy. And I’m eager to help medical students and forensic evaluators grow into the next generation of leaders nationally. Notably, we’re focused on hosting medical student and postgraduate fellowships in refugee and immigrant health. Of course, we’ll share the findings and best practices of our model with peers throughout the country.

Through this work, we are raising our collective voices and making courageous use of resources. I invite you to learn more about our work. Together, we can move toward our vision of a welcoming world in which health disparities among immigrant families are eliminated, families receive the care and resources they need to live a safe and fulfilling life, and border policies reflect our national values of justice, compassion and leadership.


Suzanne Barakat, MD, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, where she serves as the executive director of the Health and Human Rights Initiative. She completed her residency in Family & Community Medicine at UCSF. Previously, Dr. Barakat contributed to a first-of-its-kind mood screener and mental health assessment of Arabic-speaking communities worldwide, and worked at makeshift polyclinics and state hospitals serving thousands of refugees along the Turkish-Syrian border. Dr. Barakat also serves as Board Chair for Our Three Winners Foundation. She has been outspoken about the role of advocacy and allyship in countering the rising tide of Islamophobia, and has given a TED talk on the subject. Dr. Barakat is passionate about women’s health, global health, and social justice.

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