An Inclusive Effort to Help Her Homeland

February 01, 2020
Photo of Rawan AlHeresh

A wistful smile crosses Rawan AlHeresh’s face when she sees MGH Institute students assisting Palestinian refugees with disabilities in Jordan.

The smile comes from knowing that scores of people are getting rehabilitation help they normally would not be able to receive. The wistfulness is because she too is a Jordanian from a family of Palestinian refugees who were among the more than half a million residents displaced by the creation of Israel in 1948 after World War II.

“I grew up in a developing country and my ancestors are refugees,” says Dr. AlHeresh, who joined the Institute in 2017 as an assistant professor of occupational therapy with a research focus on community-based rehabilitation in developing countries and occupational and social justice among refugees. “I’ve always stayed connected to my country and knew that I wanted to do something positive to affect my people.”

Although AlHeresh has not lived in Jordan since moving to the USA for her PhD in 2011, the story of her grandfather’s relocation, along with still having relatives living in Jordan, prompted her to take a hard look at her career goals. “I would ask myself, ‘What am I doing? Should I continue to stay comfortable, or should I take a gamble?’” she recalls. “I thought I should use research and education to make a difference.”

The result? She founded Toward an All-Inclusive Jordan, an initiative that focuses on rehabilitation, clinical training, and advocacy for adults and children with disabilities. Thanks to a seed grant from the Institute and the global health department at Massachusetts General Hospital, her interprofessional initiative has brought together 20 students from occupational therapy, speech-language pathology, physical therapy, nursing, and physician assistant studies to work at the Baqa’a and Gaza refugee camps in Jordan.

During their stay, which is overseen by AlHeresh and other faculty members including Susan Lambrecht Smith, an assistant professor of speech-language pathology, the students have conducted hundreds of patient evaluations, held workshops, and led educational sessions for parents and local rehabilitation workers who want to learn more about disability issues.

AlHeresh has co-authored papers with several of the OT students who stayed in Amman for three months to complete their capstone projects in 2019, the results of which she will incorporate into her research. “No one has really done any research on how rehabilitation service delivery can improve people’s lives in Jordan, so it’s like starting from ground zero,” she says, noting that a lack of practitioners—the World Health Organization reports that low- and middle-income countries have fewer than 10 rehab practitioners per 1 million population—and persistent cultural stigmas are major roadblocks to overcome. As it is, she expects it will take 25 to 30 years to implement large-scale changes related to effective approaches to access to rehabilitation in low- and middle-income countries.

Although it’s been just two years since the project began, her work is being noticed already. AlHeresh received the 2019 Thomas S. Durant Fellowship in Refugee Medicine from Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Global Health, and in November received an award from the Jordan Ministry of Youth.

“This work is an extension of being a scientist who grew up in a developing country,” she says. “As faculty and students, we have responsibilities toward making the world a more inclusive place.”