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Human Rights and Health in Marginalized Communities

Dr. Eunice Areba on Promoting the Healthy Development of Refugee and Immigrant Individuals, Marginalized Youth, and their Families
February 8, 2021

Human rights research and teaching at the University of Minnesota spans multiple Schools and Colleges including liberal arts, public policy, law, public health, education, design, and medicine, among others. This three-part series highlights the work of our faculty specializing in health care.

A public health nurse and adolescent scholar dedicated to teaching the next generation of health care providers and to researching the health outcomes of marginalized groups, Clinical Assistant Professor in the School of Nursing Dr. Eunice Areba consistently brings important questions of social justice and human rights into the classroom and health care practice. Learn more about Dr. Areba and the important work she does in the article below.

Disparities in health outcomes among social groups in the U.S. and in Minnesota have become increasingly evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. Experiencing the stresses of relocation and having limited access to healthcare and other resources through schools such as healthy meals, social connection, and access to supportive and caring adults, members of immigrant and refugee groups are frequently denied the right to health and those resources needed to support their health. Such disparities can have detrimental impacts on immigrant and refugee origin youth as they struggle to cope with adversities that can negatively impact their mental, emotional and physical health throughout the life course. Looking to address such socioeconomic disparities and their unjust outcomes, Dr. Eunice Areba takes a critical look at health in the current era. 

"We’ll need very bold steps. We really cannot continue
to function the way things were before the pandemic."

Dr. Eunice Areba, having specialized in pediatrics and the healthcare experiences of refugee and immigrant communities, focuses her research primarily on how immigrant and refugee origin youth cope with, develop, and thrive, in face of the disadvantages they face. She studies things such as substance abuse, self-harm (suicidal ideation and attempts) and depression and anxiety among individuals in this group to get an understanding of the ways in which their intersecting identities and or exposure to adverse life experiences impact their health outcomes. Her work influences her teaching at the U, as it “has a lens of social justice” as she notes that “you can’t have health equity without social justice.”

Dr. Areba notes the study of young people’s health outcomes as being of great importance, as these individuals will become the next generation of adults. In her words, “we need to ensure that they have an optimal phase of development, and are able to engage in society to the best of their ability. A lot of times we don’t think about the rights of young people, but we should because that is the future generation, our future leaders, parents, educators and community members. Young people should have a voice and be part of the decision making process” She sees young people as needing and deserving support in transitioning into adulthood, especially those that face the additional stressors that often result from relocation and resettlement.  

Affecting the health outcomes among immigrants and refugees more broadly are the ways in which they are welcomed into communities. Members of this group “have had their rights trampled, in terms of their rights to safety, their right to a home, and their right to social networks that keep them healthy.” When members of these groups do resettle, they face additional challenges in their new communities. Hostility towards immigrants and refugees can result in a tense relationship between those who are newly settled and host community members, preventing newly-arrived individuals from having the community support fundamental to their well-being. 

Dr. Areba is expanding her area of research to study the needs of immigrant and refugee LGBTQ+ youth living in her home country of Kenya, as part of a health team that received a Human Rights Lab grant. Originally planning to carry out field work in Kenya, the COVID-19 pandemic has paused the research, however, Dr. Areba looks forward to resuming it soon.

Dr. Areba’s work and studies are rooted in social justice. Dr. Areba asserts that a return to the status quo after COVID 19 is unacceptable and impossible.  She also highlights the fact that many of the injustices highlighted by this pandemic have deep historical roots. “The pandemic has really shown us things that we have been talking about for a long time. These are inequities along many lines… We’ve seen really high rates of hospitalizations and deaths among Blacks, Hispanics, and Tribal Nations. But this didn’t start with COVID-19….. COVID-19 has just made these issues more sharp.” To be able to address such a situation, Dr. Areba asserts that “we’ll need very bold steps. We really cannot continue to function the way things were before the pandemic.”

Through her work and teaching, Dr. Areba hopes to communicate to others the fact that healthcare is a human right; not simply a privilege for those who can afford to pay for it. Reflective of the stance taken by Dr. Areba: “Healthcare is a human right. Being healthy is a human right. Other people maybe don’t see it that way, they may see it as something you have to pay for to deserve. I do not see it that way. If we do not take care of everybody, we are going to face the repercussions. The pandemic has been a perfect example of this.” As she thinks about teaching future generations of health care providers, she sees the creation of a workforce that is attuned to injustices in the healthcare system and society at large as being crucial. Additionally important to effecting change is the creation of a more diverse healthcare workforce. “Our healthcare workforce does not look like the populations we serve. We need to ask ourselves why that is… looking at policies and norms that determines who gets to get into the healthcare workforce and who are those people that decide what our workforce looks like.”