Published March 15, 2021
Since its inception in 2014, the Human Rights Initiative at the University at Buffalo (HRI), a medical student group, has played an important role in helping to document and assess evidence of torture in people seeking refuge and asylum in Western New York.
The group, based in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is one of the most active in the Physicians for Human Rights’ (PHR) national network of medical school organizations that train medical students to do forensic exams on asylum-seekers.
The Jacobs School group’s students and faculty mentor were asked to assist their counterparts in Syracuse and at SUNY Upstate Medical University as they go about developing the same capabilities to help asylum-seekers in Central New York.
On Feb. 24, Kim Strong Griswold, MD, MPH, professor of family medicine and psychiatry and the UB group’s faculty mentor, gave a virtual talk on “Insights and Best Practices for Medical Evaluations in the Context of Immigration Applications,” as part of a panel presentation for potential medical volunteers in Syracuse.
“The Jacobs School group is an established PHR clinic,” Griswold says. “Because we’ve been doing medical evaluations for six years and have been training our students in this important work, we were asked to provide some assistance as the Syracuse effort gets off the ground.”
Griswold, who is also a physician with UBMD Family Medicine, is certified by PHR and works with local clinicians in Buffalo to document and assess evidence of torture and trauma in refugees and asylum-seekers. She also provides testimony at asylum hearings.
This work can save lives, Griswold notes, since individuals are more likely to be granted asylum in the United States with documentation of the physical or psychological evidence of the torture they experienced.
The main goal of a medical evaluation is to document physical or psychological torture by an individual seeking asylum in the U.S. Through the years, Griswold has testified in court in 15 cases. A case typically takes five years or more to go through the entire process.
As mentor to the student group, she is helping to train the next generation to do this work. Jacobs School medical students learn to conduct physical and psychological medical exams. They act as scribes, carefully recording the harrowing and terrifying details of what the person has been through. Students also may attend court hearings.
There are currently over 90 medical students trained as scribes for the HRI, and 17 students from all four classes in the Jacobs School comprise the initiative’s executive board. These are experiences, Griswold says, the students find enormously enriching.
“This is an experience that solidifies our students’ connection to the community. It allows them to alleviate suffering and to fight for social justice,” Griswold says. “It is a joy to teach students who really have their eyes open to the world and who want to make things better.”