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Profiles in Public Health

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Khawla Nasser AlDeen

MPH, Health Promotion and Community Health, American University of Beirut- Faculty of Health Sciences

What does public health mean to you?

To me, public health is the art of change-making to create equitable opportunities of health flourishing for all. On a global level- it could mean access to safety, security, and healthcare as fundamental human rights and needs. Zooming in on specific groups’ health within communities- public health can challenge histories of oppression, sexism, xenophobia, classism, exploitation, ableism, ageism, and many other forms of injustices that directly impact the wellbeing of groups and individuals and their quality of life.

What inspired you to study public health?

I grew up in a small town in Lebanon, where health and social wellbeing for many seemed like a privilege and not a right. I witnessed my mom, a midwife working at a Lebanese Red Cross clinic, serve the community by promoting children’s wellbeing and women’s reproductive health. I accompanied her on vaccination and women’s health outreach campaigns in informal settlements and rural areas. I watched her sit in circles with girls and women, creating safe and encouraging spaces for dialogues around sexual and reproductive health. Although I did not know that what she does is public health, I was and continue to be inspired by her and her impactful and graceful way of communicating with the people in our community. After studying Psychology and Health Studies, focusing on displacement and mental health, I am grateful to take a path in community health and health promotion in public health. I am grateful to find continuous inspiration from my undergraduate and graduate professors, mentors, and community organizations.

What has been the single most rewarding experience of your career or studies so far?

My family and I experienced internal displacement 15 years ago. It was a difficult time… We capitalized on community support and resilience as we recovered in our journey towards healing. I carried this moment as a vow to serve with people who have experienced displacement. With a resettlement agency in Kentucky, I served with the mental health coordinator to support refugee newcomers in their transition to the community. We used creative methods like drum circles, hiking, embroidery, or soccer for collective affirmation and psychosocial support beyond languages’ boundaries. Later, in my role with IAAP, I had the opportunity to serve as a youth delegate during the Global Forum on Migration and Development and the Global Compact for Migration, bringing mental health and wellbeing promotion to the negotiations and policy dialogues. These are examples of experiences that I am grateful for- interacting with the global community in Louisville, Kentucky, and taking a small part in advocating for migrants’ mental health and wellbeing on the international agenda.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing public health today?

I believe this depends on the context. The current COVID-19 pandemic overstretched health care systems globally and exposed weaknesses in health equity and inclusion. This health crisis allowed histories of human rights violations, nationalism, and greed to resurface in the form of discrimination against certain groups. Lessons must be learned from the pandemic to ensure dignified healthcare access for all, create protective and inclusive health policies, and invest in preparedness and health system strengthening. The critical lesson is that “no one is safe until everyone is safe,” and systems need to have clear, participatory, and inclusive strategies for ensuring safety and wellbeing for all.

What advice would you offer someone who is thinking about a career in public health? 

For those who are interested in the interdisciplinary field of public health- I would encourage you to reflect and think of the needs in the community and issues you are passionate about and to have the courage to create your path within public health. An education in public health can equip students with an understanding of the field’s history, theories behind the practice, tools for assessment, research interventions, or advocacy, among other skills. The catalyst in the learning process, though, is being present, creating connections, and having the willingness to think critically and sometimes unlearn old practices. I believe in learning through service, and I think that volunteering can be a great way to meet inspiring mentors and build first-hand experiences in the field. Another piece of advice would be to expand your education beyond the parameters of the syllabi, classrooms, or lectures. Be open to boldly learn from the environment surrounding you- from interacting with current news, having difficult conversations with your family, noticing how gender stereotypes are perpetuated on social media, examining useless plastic packaging in grocery stores, assessing the accessibility of buildings you visit… There are opportunities for change all around us and spaces for promoting public health and wellbeing.

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