Published: 06/20/2024

A conversation with Dr. Shazeen Suleman on World Refugee Day

By Jamie Hansen, Global Health Communications Manager

(Cover image: Dr. Suleman, right, is pictured with her research coordinator, Puneet, and research assistant, Deirdre.)

Migration is a kind of disenfranchised grief. One way to heal is through inclusion, participation, and making community.

Shazeen Suleman, MD, MPH

For World Refugee Day, we spoke with Shazeen Suleman, MD MPH, Clinical Associate Professor in Pediatrics, a pediatrician at Gardner Packer Children’s Health Center, Co-Director of Community Engagement with the Stanford Office of Child Health Equity, and a Global Health Faculty Fellow. She joined Stanford in 2023, bringing with her a longstanding commitment to working with newly arrived (newcomer) refugee children and families in support of their health and wellbeing. 

Dr. Suleman said she’s motivated in this work by her experience as the daughter of refugees. When she treats children who are newly arrived as refugees or asylum seekers, she thinks of her parents, who came to Canada as refugees.

Yet she’s struck by how different the circumstances are now — by how policies and programs supported her family’s transition to a new country are now no longer available. She wants to help the young children she sees in her clinic have access to the same opportunities that enabled her own positive trajectory.

So in addition to serving children as a pediatrician, Dr. Suleman leads several initiatives to help refugee children and families access healthcare and other vital services, find a sense of belonging, and share their voices. She has a particular passion for serving children with special health needs, as these can be particularly challenging for newcomer families to navigate.

“Every adult was once a child. [Supporting children] is the ultimate preventive healthcare,” she said. “If you can change the trajectory of the life of a child, you’re changing the future.”

Every adult was once a child. [Supporting children] is the ultimate preventive healthcare. If you can change the trajectory of the life of a child, you’re changing the future.

Shazeen Suleman, MD, MPH

For Dr. Suleman, a community-engaged, participatory approach to this work is critical to its success. 

“I see myself as a contractor for newcomer youth and families. In the same way a construction contractor executes a person’s vision for their home; I want to use my skills to help newcomer families execute their vision for healthy resettlement.”

In 2022, she received a prestigious New investigator Grant from the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR) to co-design (with newcomer families and care providers) a prospective cohort study to follow growth and nutrition of recently arrived migrant children. Such families are underrepresented in research due to bias, inaccessible study design and mistrust. This study seeks to address that by engaging parents and care providers to design a study that will better address their needs, priorities, and concerns. Dr. Suleman hopes the study design will become a template for others wishing to research the health of refugees.

Now in California, Dr. Suleman is also collaboratively working with migrant youth to develop an intervention that identifies and addresses their specific health needs. In partnership with the Sequoia Union High School District Newcomer Welcome Center in Redwood City, she is helping them build their team of migrant youth advisors to understand their key challenges in receiving health care, such as confusion around Medicaid. 

Brainstorming ways to help newcomer youth navigate the healthcare system. Via Shazeen Suleman

From there, they hope to design, with the youth, an intervention that can be shared with the school district and other partners. A similar project in Canada yielded a youth-designed toolkit to help other youth access healthcare, which has been widely distributed. This project is funded by the Maternal and Child Health Research Institute’s “Community Engaged Research to Promote Health Equity.” 

For World Refugee Day, Dr. Suleman underscored the importance of inclusion for newcomer children families. 

“No child has ever chosen to be a refugee and leave everything they’ve known to be in an unfamiliar environment,” she said. “By virtue of being a refugee, they’re fleeing something difficult and traumatic. Inclusion becomes a very important factor for so many people in healing that trauma.”

This includes inclusion in healthcare, the living spaces available to them, education, and community.

“Migration is a kind of disenfranchised grief. One way to heal is through inclusion, participation, and making community,” she said. 

Those wishing to learn more or get involved can visit Dr. Suleman’s lab website here.