Undergrad Research Fellowships 17


Undergraduate Summer Research Fellows

Students make strides with global research this summer

Zhelia Arif
Zhelia Arif, 2017 Undergraduate Summer Research Fellow

Undergraduate Researcher: Zhelia Arif
Mentor:  Mayda Topoushian, Ph.D., School of World Studies
Research Topic:  Providing Yazidi and Kurdish IDP Women Access to Safe Reproductive Healthcare and its Effects on their Mental, Physical, and Emotional Health.

Rising junior Zhelia Arif, a pre-med student in the Honors College majoring in Biology and Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, will spend 10 weeks this summer working in refugee camps in Kurdistan, Iraq, speaking with female Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs), to research the services available to those needing reproductive health care. Under the guidance of her faculty mentor, Mayda Topoushian, Ph.D., instructor of international studies, Arif’s study stems from the need to increase the availability of legal abortions for these women, and to remove the health risks and stigmas often existing in order to deter the use of illegal methods.

The research goal is to determine if the women who receive the services have a better outcome in life as compared to the women who have risky and illegal abortions.

The study will specifically focus on how providing reproductive health care and resources in the camps will allow safe abortions and survival rates for Yazidi and Kurdish women;  the differences in health risks and complications that may occur when a health professional in a clinical setting performs an abortion compared to a non-professional in an at-home setting; the social and cultural issues that these particular health services cause; and the evolution of the culture to alleviate the stigma associated with abortion procedures.

“I would like to find out what kinds of services are provided specifically at those camps,” she said. “These are people who have gone through a lot of turmoil; there are people who have been enslaved by ISIL and have been released. I want to see how all of that has affected them psychologically and how providing these options to a better life than the situation they are in will affect their living circumstances.”

During the course of her stay in Erbil, Iraq, Arif will conduct research for 20 hours per week by interviewing doctors, clinicians and consenting IDPs. The remaining time she will be volunteering at the camp, teaching and reading to the children and assisting with general needs of the camp.

A pre-med student in the Honors College, Arif is excited to work in the refugee camps and make a difference for these women. It is her passion for helping others that has led her to this extensive research endeavor. After hearing a presentation from “Joint Help for Kurdistan," an initiative that provides support to NGOs and fields funding from individuals and voluntaries, she was greatly interested and took the initiative to speak personally to one of its leaders about getting involved, which led to the creation of her research initiative.

“I believe that if you're not passionate about something you're not going to do it well. And I’m passionate about global studies and women's studies.”

 “I decided I have a great opportunity right here to create a research question,” she said. “This research question ties together all the parts of what I'm studying here at VCU and what I want to accomplish. It ties in my gender and women's studies major because I'm working with women who need that reproductive healthcare, and it's tying in my pre-medicine interests, as well as my interest in research and volunteerism. So it's a great project for me.”

Since Arif considers herself to be “westernized” after having come to the United States nine years ago from Erbil, Iraq, with her family, she feels this experience will be very valuable but also challenging as she will have to learn more about the customs and culture of her own people.

“When I go to these camps, it will not be as if I'm going home and it will be what I'm used to. These are two completely different worlds within the same culture,” she said. “Even though it's my own people, it’s going to be totally different from anything I've ever experienced, so I'm going to have to adapt to working in that environment and figuring out how that part of the global population operates.”

Topoushian will be instrumental in helping her learn aspects of the Middle Eastern culture she may not be accustomed to so that she can assimilate and relate to the people well in order to connect properly with the subjects.

“There is the idea of a culture of norms and practices existing for our students. Even though Zhelia is part of that culture her upbringing and education are in the western environment, and even though she can relate to certain aspects of it, she is herself ‘westernized.’ So my mentorship in this sense is to acquaint her to the cultural part of the puzzle,” explained Topoushian.

Arif understands that the opportunity she has been given allows her to explore her interests, and ultimately will help her in her future endeavors. She has fervor to utilize her strengths and passions to help change issues in the world that she deems important.

“I believe that if you're not passionate about something you're not going to do it well,” she said. “And I’m passionate about global studies and women's studies. What I'm going to be doing this summer is what I hopefully will be doing in ten years once I've gone through all of my training to be a doctor, so I'm very excited for the opportunity to put it into practice,” she said.

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