CPI and Harvard University: Building the next generation of public health leaders in Myanmar and at home

HIV/AIDs prevention education practice in the PHI classroom.
Umpiem Mai Refugee camp

In January, 2014 eight graduate students from the Harvard School of Public Health arrived in Umpiem Mai refugee camp, adding an exciting new facet to the Public Health Institute (PHI) curriculum — the Harvard Twinning Course. PHI is a one of the world's only junior-college level public health programs based at a refugee camp, with curriculum developed by Community Partners International and our partner the Karen Refugee Committee Education Entity (KRCEE).

The three-week Twinning course offers Harvard and PHI’s 21 students an unprecedented opportunity to learn together the public health skills critical to refugee and disaster-affected communities: water and sanitation, issues facing women and children, infectious diseases, and common tools used to develop and assess public health programming.

More than 140,000 refugees live in camps along the Thailand-Myanmar border, a conflict affected region with an acute shortage of health services and trained health workers. Young adult refugees — many of whom have spent their entire lives in the camps — have very limited higher educational opportunities.

“Our students get practical experience in international public health,” said Dr. Parveen Parmar, faculty at the Humanitarian Academy at Harvard, and lead faculty for the course. “They learn in same classroom as PHI students, learn about different international non-governmental organizations, learn about issues in camp.”

Lectures during the three-week course are given by both Harvard faculty and faculty from the Public Health Institute, allowing for an exchange of information between both schools.  Groups of students are jointly developing small qualitative, quantitative, or mixed methods public health projects in collaboration with camp-based non-governmental organizations, exploring a local public health issue. When the Harvard students return to Boston, they will continue to collaborate with their PHI colleagues.

“Youth displaced by conflict face many challenges — trauma and lack of access to basic resources and health services — but they also face tremendous limitations in accessing education,” said Dr. Parmar.  “Many of these students have either lived in the refugee camps along the border for their entire lives, or, lacking other options, were forced to make the dangerous journey across the border to seek an education.”

With an emphasis on experiential learning, the Public Health Institute provides a pathway to occupational stability for refugees, as well as stronger community-based health infrastructure in the region.

“In my village,” said one PHI student, “there are about 500 villagers, and there are many health problems. There aren’t any nurses or clinics. Women can’t access health care and many die after delivery. Most children are very thin and suffer low weight because they have no food; they eat boiled rice water. When I become a public health worker, I want to work to help the people of my village and others like them.”