The University of South Florida College of Public Health is helping the Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management (OEM) prepare refugee and migrant women for natural disasters in the Tampa Bay area.
Public Health students facilitated a visit to the Emergency Operations Center – allowing the women to share their experiences and provide leaders a greater understanding of how to address their needs while navigating obstacles, such as language barriers.
“The goal is to learn how we can help everyone be prepared,” said Angela Salter, Hillsborough County Office of Emergency Management education outreach coordinator. “Everybody deserves the opportunity to get the information. We want to provide that knowledge they need and really help them prepare and create a plan of action.”
As of 2021, more than 1.4 million people live in Hillsborough County, according to U.S. Census data. Salter says it’s crucial that everyone understands the importance of hurricane preparedness and planning. Through partnerships like this, the OEM can directly engage with citizens who are otherwise hard to reach and prepare them for worst-case scenarios, where each second counts.
“Our partners are really the eyes and ears of our community,” she said. “A lot of times people don’t know we are here.”
The fast-paced research course, Public Health Innovation Studio, is focusing on disaster preparedness and resilience among vulnerable populations this summer.
The first two weeks of the course are dedicated to learning qualitative research and evaluation methods. For the remaining three weeks of the course, each student is paired with a refugee woman from the Refugee & Migrant Women’s Initiative, Inc (RAMWI) for the students to explore cultural phenomena from refugees’ point of view and evaluate their progress within the program.
One of the students’ greatest tasks is to create asset maps unique to each refugee. These serve as a reference for the women to locate resources near them and develop a hurricane evacuation plan tailored to their families’ needs.
Aziza, a mother of two and refugee from Egypt, moved to the United States in 2019. Although she has been here for a couple of years, her language barrier has made it difficult to understand hurricanes.
“When she does go to a store, there isn’t a section that says ‘hurricane supplies’ – you have to know what you’re looking for,” said senior Aleeza Masood, Aziza’s partner throughout the course.
Now Aziza says she is prepared and thankful for people who took the time to explain flood zones, shelters and hurricane kit essentials to her because keeping her family safe is her top priority.
Instructor Elizabeth Dunn says the goal is to provide the women with safe environments to heal and engage with the community as they settle into the area. Part of the course is dedicated to service-learning, which includes volunteering in the community with the refugee women depending on the topic of the course. For example, last year the focus was food security and the women volunteered in local community gardens and cooked a dish from their home country for the community.
Over the years, Dunn says the course has proven to be mutually beneficial for everyone involved.
“You can see how much the women love teaching the USF students about their experiences, culture and some of their barriers and challenges resettling here in the Tampa Bay area,” said Dunn. “It’s an empowering experience that helps the refugee women build their confidence as well.”
Students have the opportunity to learn unique cultural traditions and how to navigate language barriers. At the same time, the women gain a better understanding of their new community, practice their English and engage in cultural exchange, while learning how to advocate for themselves and their families. To help build their resumes, the refugee women also receive a certificate of completion at the end of the program.
The experiences in Dunn’s course are similar to what initially inspired her – a simple assignment in a college class that led to a conversation with a refugee from Bosnia-Herzegovina, ultimately changing the course of her career and perception of the world.
“If one assignment impacted me that way, I would hope that my classes can make that same impact on other students as they’re going to work within communities, especially with immigrants and other vulnerable populations.”
Dunn hopes to expand the course by opening the enrollment to students across campus.
“We’re always going to learn from other colleges. If everybody is from the College of Public Health, then you just have a public health mindset, but if you throw in students from other areas, a lot of times you have unique discussions and skillsets to bring to the table.”