College of
Human
Medicine

Samir Yassin in Chicago

2017

A crucial characteristic shared by the most successful physicians is a genuine sense of compassion and a desire to help those in need. Community service has undoubtedly been a central part of my life, with a variety of trips that I have dedicated to helping those most in need, most prominently in Tanzania, Sudan and across various countries in the Middle East. These trips have undeniably been some of the most meaningful experiences of my life, allowing me to broaden my horizons and expanding my helping hand beyond just my community, to the international stage. The smiles on the faces of those I helped continue to be ingrained in my memory to this day and act as the greatest token of reward one can ask for.

As the academic year kicked off, I was immediately interested in participating in several school organized service trips, most notably trips to Haiti and Cuba topped my list. It was not until my colleague Ryan offered me a ride to Chicago, where I would be flying out from for winter break, that I was hit with the realization that while we all look far and distant for those that need help, sometimes those that need the most help are sat right under our noses. This was my first time in Chicago, and in the twelve hours that I spent there before my flight, I could not help but notice the devastation and despair that haunted large parts of the city. Having lived in Chicago for a few years, Ryan educated me about the geography and history as we drove through various neighborhoods where the racial and socio-economic segregation was truly eye-opening. It was at this point that we decided to involve our friend Andrew and collaborate on a project to help the forgotten people of Chicago that are often most in need.

I was surprised to find out that beyond the metropolitan majesty and glamour, Chicago was ranked 30th overall in healthcare among US states according to the United Health Foundation. Upon further research, it was easy to see how many compounding factors such as inadequacies in education, employment, housing, access to food, healthcare availability, crime, language barriers and segregation could all lead to the discrepancies in healthcare observed. In looking at previous efforts to help address these issues, it was evident that while direct medical help was effective to treat parts of the population immediately, in the long term it did nothing to fix the major societal barriers that lead to healthcare inadequacies in the first place. As a group, we came across an article in the Chicago tribune titled 'How to take on Health Inequality in America' by Alice Rivlin and Mark McClellan, that explained how the most effective strategy to tackle Chicago's healthcare deficits is to help address the leading and precipitating factors that were discussed earlier in this paragraph, paying special attention to "prescribing housing assistance, job training and nutritional resources".

It is because of this research that we too chose to implement this prevention not intervention strategy, teaming up with the Providence of God Catholic Church in the Lower West Side of Chicago to help coordinate food kitchens, implement community programs and provide physical labor to restore the church which acts as a uniting force for an otherwise largely isolated Hispanic community. Often times, volunteers set out to serve a community without truly understanding and serving the needs of that community, such that a community may benefit from help temporarily, however upon completion of the service commitment, things return to the way they were before, rendering those hours of service essentially non-beneficial. We chose our approach to service with the needs of our target population in mind. The key to serving the population of the Lower East side of Chicago was sustainability, in the sense that by renovating the church and implementing programs targeted for this population, we are building a sustainable center to bring the community together, keep children off the streets and help those fearing deportation long after our service trip was done and we had returned to Michigan.

For the first four days following our arrival we were tasked with a complete overhaul of the church which had previously had its doors shut for the previous seven years. With an eye on a community enrichment program that we were hosting the following week, we worked tirelessly scrubbing, painting and waxing every corner of the church. With 8 hours of difficult, physical labor every day the next 3 days proved to be the most difficult and demanding of our experience. As word began to spread that the church was reopening its doors, locals began to stop in to show their appreciation for our efforts and it was this sense of gratitude that helped numb the physical pains of labor on the hardest of days. In a community of strong faith, it was very evident just how significant the Providence of God Church was to the Lower East Side community of Chicago.

Over the next two days, we organized and ran two separate soup kitchens. On each day, we met up early with a group of elderly women who have run these kitchens for the last 27 years in the area and were extremely grateful for our service. Communication was extremely difficult as none of the women spoke English, with the exception of Sylvia, a 56-year-old Venezuelan immigrant who explained to us that her mastery of the English language stems from her short upbringing in the United Kingdom before her parents returned to Caracas. We shared a few laughs together, and had a few heartbreaking discussions about the current sorrow and turmoil that continues to haunt Venezuela. Sylvia shared with me that even today she doesn’t have much financially, but to be able to wake up without the sounds of violence and smell of teargas as is the case for her family in Venezuela, she feels blessed each and every day. This was an extremely humbling statement for me, and a reminder that even on the worst of days for me, that someone out there would do anything to be in my shoes. Sylvia helped translate for the other women that we worked with, the majority of whom were Mexican immigrants and they all had similar inspirational stories for us. Despite their differences, the commonality between all of these women however, was that they didn’t have much financially, but they had more than someone else and that was enough motivation for them to lend a helping hand. This is a life lesson that will truly stick with me moving forward, not only in the medical profession and with my future patients, but through my approach to life in general from a humanitarian perspective.

On each day that we ran the soup kitchen, we fed well over 250 people. On the first day in particular, I recall walking outside before we had opened the doors to see the line stretch around the block. Men, women and children from every race and ethnicity stood in a single, organized file as they eagerly awaited what was the first meal in several days for some of them. This too made me realize that, while there is a strong correlation between racial demographics and poverty in America perpetuated by both individual and systemic biases, it is still a problem that affects us all and that is what makes it a human problem. I have always taken pride in my multicultural upbringing as it has allowed me to see the world through a global lens irrespective of race, color, ethnicity or creed. What I didn’t realize however until I saw those people lined up for food, is the smaller inherent biases we all hold. Before going to Chicago, I am ashamed to admit that I had made an assumption that most of those we will be serving are those with drug-use disorders and choose not to pursue employment. To my surprise I had to put all those personal biases aside when I looked out to see those in line on that day. While there were a few with alcohol-use disorder and other substance-use disorders sharing bottles in line, these made up a small fraction of everyone there. Most of those in line were actually victims of abuse, human trafficking, healthcare disabilities, alienated populations and undocumented migrants that can’t be employed. This was a great lesson going forward for all physicians, no matter how culturally-competent we may think we are, we all hold inherent biases, and to be able to fully help our patients, in particular our vulnerable populations, we must become aware of these biases and set them aside. Many of those we served throughout the day didn’t speak a word of English or chose not to speak at all, but as they walked in and we loaded their trays with food, their smiles of gratitude spoke an unmistakable language. Those two days in the soup kitchen were a truly gratifying experience, however we knew that providing food only provided temporary relief, and that the true fruit of our labor is in the opening of the church, which will have far more prolonged benefits for the community.

We concluded the final day of our service trip with an immigration safe space that we helped organize. The current political climate in the United States has struck fear into the hearts of many, of particular importance is the undocumented migrant population. The majority of the residents of the Lower East side of Chicago are undocumented workers and were the target of our implementation of this program. Through the immigration safe space we managed to bring in a holocaust survivor and the daughter of a Japanese internment camp survivor to share with the community the horrors of their experiences, but more importantly compare and contrast those experiences to the current political climate. At the end of the day, the message from both speakers was one of positivity, such that history will always try to repeat itself, but we need to learn from our mistakes in the past to stand up together and speak up. As the speakers talked, and the sounds of the translators echoed, I remember looking around the church and you could feel signs of hope and courage begin to lift the air around me. We concluded this portion of the night with some live music, followed by a candle light vigil around the church to honor those that feel victimized by the current political climate. Thereafter, everyone was brought down to the basement of the church where we had invited local artists to set up an exhibition, selling their artwork with a portion of the proceeds being raised for charity. We had a DJ playing music, and sold food and drinks that too helped raise funds for charity. We also provided everyone with resources for safe spaces, as well as free healthcare clinic locations since many undocumented workers shared with us their concerns about seeking medical attention in fear of deportation under the Trump administration. This is another example of the interplay between societal issues and health, and highlights the importance of addressing the societal barriers to truly improve healthcare.

While our service project was short due to the time-restraints of our visit, I am very proud of how much we accomplished in a week, not just for the City of Chicago but for my personal growth and understanding of the world too. By doing so we helped to address nutritional factors, encourage healthy lifestyles, improve literacy rates, bring the community together and reduce crime rates in an otherwise extremely violent city. This was primarily achieved by engaging the youth in productive activities through the church to keep them off the streets. I am extremely humbled to have been a part of such a powerful and impactful project, and to have contributed to empowering the people of the Lower West Side of Chicago to take control of their lives and health through a uniting force in the Providence of God Catholic Church for generations to come.