Following in the Footsteps of Physicians for Human Rights

Second-year medical students Martina Sinopoli and Anastasia Barros with the help of Dr. Susan Levine are launching the UConn Immigration Rights Initiative (UIRI) to assist asylum seekers in Connecticut.
Second-year medical students Martina Sinopoli and Anastasia Barros with the help of Physicians for Human Rights and UConn Health's Dr. Susan Levine are launching the UConn Immigration Rights Initiative (UIRI) to assist asylum seekers in Connecticut (UConn Health/Kristin Wallace).

UConn School of Medicine students are launching the UConn Immigration Rights Initiative (UIRI) this fall to aid individuals seeking asylum with access to medical and mental health evaluations to improve their chances of being granted safe haven in the U.S.

The asylum advocacy effort is led by UConn medical school’s student chapter of the internationally renowned organization Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) which recently joined forces with the school’s Physicians for Social Responsibility student chapter.

Second-year medical students co-leading the PHR-PSR student chapter are Martina Sinopoli of Southbury and Anastasia Barros of Cheshire (UConn Health/Kristin Wallace).
Second-year medical students co-leading the PHR-PSR student chapter are Martina Sinopoli of Southbury and Anastasia Barros of Cheshire (UConn Health/Kristin Wallace).

Currently, the second-year medical students co-leading the PHR-PSR student chapter are Anastasia Barros, 24 of Cheshire and Martina Sinopoli, 23 of Southbury. Together their group of more than 30 medical and dental students are committed to health advocacy outside the classroom to address patient health, whether clinical, social, environmental, or otherwise, through policy, advocacy, and community outreach.

“We are right on the verge of launching our Asylum Clinic at UConn Health’s Outpatient Pavilion,” said Barros about the student-led program building on the successes of UConn Law School’s student Asylum and Human Rights Clinic founded in 2002. That clinic’s work has legally helped more than 120 people who have fled his or her home country’s political, religious or other persecution.

“There are many ways students are improving the lives of the underserved members of the Hartford community,” said Sinopoli “One example of our student advocacy is the development of the UConn Immigration Rights Initiative.  Our student Asylum Clinic will soon perform pro-bono forensic physical and psychiatric examinations to aid immigration attorneys in the preparation of asylum affidavits.”

PHR’s national chapter, which will be honored on Nov. 2 with UConn’s 2017 Thomas J. Dodd Prize in International Justice and Human Rights for their longtime efforts to globally prevent human rights violations, has been instrumental in assisting UConn Health’s students with organizing their Asylum Clinic. The national and regional PHR chapters plan to refer those asylum seekers in Connecticut in need to UConn Health.

Students participating in the UConn Immigration Rights Initiative have received training from PHR on how to perform forensic evaluations.  They will use these skills to document signs of physical or mental health persecution asylum seekers may have experienced.  Past abuses likely identified may range from physical scars to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  As other medical issues are identified clients will be referred to the community health services network for follow up care.

“With proper medical and mental health evaluations and legal guidance a refugee is 90 percent more likely to be granted asylum,” says Barros. “This will be the best reward possible for us medical students to help increase the chances of these refugees remaining safe here in the U.S.”

Sinopoli adds: “With our commitment we can help asylum seekers and have a massive impact on their health and lives.”

Dr. Susan Levine is the medical director of the student-run UConn Immigration Rights Initiative and heads UConn Immigrant Health, an entity that includes an Immigrant Health clinic in general medicine, as well as, a student and a resident curriculum in refugee health.

“Exposing trainees to immigrant and refugee health needs is incredibly rewarding,” said Levine.  “It offers students a window into the global health arena and an opportunity to gain unique skills in eliciting complex determinants of health, skills that are transferrable to the care of virtually any patient.”

Fourth-year medical student and the student chapter’s former leader, Dan Rappoport, is grateful that his UConn medical education experience goes beyond the classroom to show students first-hand the ways they can play an active role in advancing healthcare and human rights.

“Immigration and refugees are currently a huge issue in our global society,” said Rappoport. “For me personally with a Jewish background I know my people were once refugees too. It’s great to see all the energy and momentum of healthcare students getting involved in human rights advocacy.”

Rappoport added: “PHR is the reason our Asylum Clinic is happening.”

On Friday, Nov. 3 at 12:00 noon UConn Health will host a special forum with the PHR Dodd Prize winners in Massey Auditorium. The honorees will discuss the ongoing global fight for human rights and the greater role health professionals can play. UConn Health doctors, staff, and students including members of the PHR-PSR student chapter will be in attendance. All are welcome. To learn more visit: www.thedoddcenter.uconn.edu/2017-dodd-prize/.