Radulovacki Research Fellow Subin Hwang Investigates Refugee Health Care in Germany

Subin Hwang was one of the recipients of the Radulovacki Global Health Research Fellowships. She spent her summer in Berlin, Germany studying health care for refugees. This was the second consecutive summer that Subin has spent working with refugees and she hopes to one day work with marginalized populations as a doctor.

Tell us about your project.

I was in Berlin studying refugee health, the gaps in medical care, and barriers to accessibility. I was at a hospital where they allowed me to shadow their doctors and all of the different outpatient clinics they had for refugees specifically. On a daily basis I was shadowing, and towards the end I conducted a lot of interviews with the doctors, nurses, and interpreters. I also administered surveys to some of the refugees who were coming through the clinic.

How did you decide to study this topic?

I worked with refugees last summer in a nonprofit and I was helping them settle into America with social security, health care, employment—everything you would need to be equipped in a new country. That experience was really rewarding and something that I really enjoyed doing. Right after I finished that internship, there was something coined the “refugee crisis” all over the news. Many refugees had crossed the border into Europe, fleeing their war torn countries. That got me interested because I had just been working with refugees and had heard some of their stories. It was something I was really passionate about so I wanted to see how they were doing it Europe since their system is very different from ours, particularly the health care. I wanted to investigate how their system was handling the influx, what successes they were having, and how they were handling the challenges they were facing.

How did your experience on the ground vary from your expectations?

I expected it to be a lot like America since that was the only exposure I previously had to refugee healthcare. But it was a lot better than I had expected. For one, they had outpatient clinics staffed with doctors and nurses instead of just pushing them in with other low-income families or other marginalized groups. They also had a very efficient system.

In terms of my research project, I was expecting to work more with policy makers and overhead management but I was more on the ground with the doctors and nurses. Although it was different, it was still a very good experience and I got to see the difficulties at the point of service, which was very eye-opening.

What was your most meaningful experience abroad, and what did it teach you?

While I was immersed in my research, I also made it a point to engage with the community outside of the clinic. I attended a lot of events and there was one poetry event for refugees who wanted to share their poetry. It was incredible. I was so moved and everyone in the room was crying. It was a good way to humanize the population because I saw them in such huge numbers through the clinic. The way Germans do things is super efficient so tons of people come through very quickly. It’s good since more people can get what they need and be seen but I didn’t get that emotional component as much. So this event was a nice way to hear their stories since I think sometimes you lose sight of that when you’re working at such a quick pace.

What was the most challenging moment or aspect, and how did you cope?

There were moments when I didn’t speak the language or have all the information I needed or there was nothing I could do. It was challenging to see the systemic issues still at play that I, as a single person, could do nothing to change. It was pretty difficult seeing that on an everyday basis but there are people who are acting to change that.

Did you encounter any cultural differences that required getting used to?

A ton. With the doctors and nurses, I think it’s a German cultural thing to not be very personal. You don’t really talk about your life or your weekend. That was something I had to get used to. There it’s very much the mindset of: we work, we go home and we keep our personal lives separate.

With the female refugees, especially in Muslim cultures, their voices aren’t as valued as the men sometimes. Seeing that in a health care setting was disheartening because they may have things they want to talk about but they aren’t allowed to or they silence themselves. That was a different cultural barrier that I noticed.

Has your summer experience impacted your future goals and interests at Northwestern or after?

My summer at the nonprofit and this past summer doing research definitely solidified my desire to work with marginalized populations whether it’s refugees or immigrants or low-income families. More than anything this summer made that passion concrete. My future goal is to be a doctor but that is very far away. Having these experiences where I am actually interacting with people makes more of an impact than working with numbers, for example. I really appreciate the opportunity and it’s definitely something that will impact my future goals.

Do you have any advice for students wishing to conduct research in an unfamiliar location?

I think people shy away from doing anything abroad or anything away from a group of friends. It differs for each person—some people are very comfortable with that while others aren’t. I personally wasn’t that comfortable with it but I put myself out there and it was work that I really wanted to learn about. So I think if you are driven by a topic you are passionate about, the location shouldn’t be that big of a factor. College is the time to take advantage of those opportunities. I don’t know when else I would spend a summer in Berlin. Use the opportunities that Northwestern offers you to really expand upon what you are passionate about.

What do you do with this work? What are your next steps?

I will be using this research for my honors thesis. I will be analyzing the data further and I will be relaying all the key findings to my supervisor at the hospital. He will be taking all the findings and will take them into account for their policy changes as well. So it is not only research that will be beneficial for my learning experience but it will also hopefully affect larger populations and policies.

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