Alumni Spotlight

Newly graduated Stempel Ph.D. takes on the world as a professor and researcher dedicated to bettering the lives of refugees

Mitra Naseh grew up in Iran and had a first-hand view of what those fleeing neighboring war-torn Afghanistan experienced

–By Alexandra Pecharich for FIU News

Mitra Naseh this month won a national award for a dissertation that presents “a multidimensional model for understanding poverty among refugees.” But the 2020 graduate of the Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work has had little time to celebrate the good news. She’s too busy.

The native of Iran, who earned a bachelor’s in computer science engineering and a master’s in urban planning and development in her homeland before arriving at FIU in 2015, recently completed her first semester as an assistant professor in the school of social work at Portland State University. She is also reworking her dissertation into a series of three articles that should each see publication this year, serves as the principal investigator on a research project even as she has applied for two more grants, and partners with organizations in Portland, Oregon, that aid refugees locally. Oh, and she continues to direct the Initiative on Social Work and Forced Migration within the Stempel College.

Putting aside her own challenges—for three years she has been unable to visit her parents and siblings back home due to a travel ban, now compounded by the pandemic—she instead finds motivation in wanting to ease the plight of a population she first encountered as a small child. “What I’m doing is personal,” she states.

Naseh had a first-hand view of what refugees from Afghanistan experienced as they fled their worn-torn country for safety in Iran. The discrimination and poverty they faced in the midst of a desperate situation left an impression on a young Naseh, and she eventually went to work for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. That post gave her a view into situations she remembers as terribly sad and sometimes inhumane, even as she saw flashes of resilience.

At FIU Naseh collaborated with professors in the school of social work on a project related to housing access in countries of origin as a factor for refugee repatriation and another that investigated non-pharmaceutical interventions for PTSD among the displaced. Her most recent work—for which the Society for Social Work and Research gave her the Outstanding Social Work Doctoral Dissertation Award—examines “indicators of wellbeing” that go beyond income, such as adult refugees’ access to education, health services and housing.

Naseh believes that looking strictly at finances, or lack thereof, limits how host and asylum countries think about and serve refugees. She advocates for a richer, more-holistic approach that speaks to individual potential and the value of investing resources in newcomers.

Education, in particular, “is important because these people arrive after years of missed opportunities to go to school,” Naseh says. “They spent years in exile. So when they arrive, they need to have access to education, they need to have access to some sort of training to get a license, to be able to get a better job.”

In the United States, where the number of annually admitted refugees has fallen to an historic low, Naseh adds that ensuring them the basics will eventually pay off for the greater society.

“Refugees are new Americans,” she says. “They are on a path to citizenship. We need to set them [up] for success from the beginning.”

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