Sterling Heights

Medical student program reaches out to refugee youth in metro Detroit

Anna Jahshan knows what it’s like to feel like an outsider. After being born in the U.S., Jahshan’s family returned to their Palestinian homeland, and back to the U.S. when she was in the third grade. She hasn’t forgotten how challenging the move was.

“I didn’t speak any English,” Jahshan says. “I didn’t make any friends that entire first year.”

Now a second-year medical student at the Oakland University William Beaumont (OUWB) School of Medicine, Jashan and her peers are helping others who are new to the country. Jahshan is a leader in the Score for Success program, an initiative that sees medical students regularly volunteer to work with refugee youth at a Sterling Heights middle school.

“I wanted to give back,” says Jahshan. “For all those who helped me get through it and get to where I am.”

For three hours, every other Friday, refugee students at Virgil I. Grissom Middle School get help with academics, literacy, and discuss health and wellness issues before heading to the school’s gym to play sports.

This is Jahshan’s second year participating in the program and says while the academic benefits for middle school students are obvious, there’s an emotional support that’s offered as well.

“Sometimes they just like having someone to talk to,” says Jahshan. “I try to teach them that it’s okay to make new friends, to be friends with people who don’t speak your language, friends who have different beliefs. That it’s okay to have that friendship.”

The initiative started as an OUWB internship project in 2017 and now in its third year, with a record 40 participants, it shows no sign of slowing.

“At the beginning of the school year, we have kids asking ‘When are the medical students coming in? When is Score for Success going to be up and running?’” says Grissom Middle School Principal Elizabeth Iljkoski.

“It’s now part of our culture, part of what we do here, and the kids take a lot of pride in being identified among those who get to participate in it,” Iljkoski says.

Score for Success is open only to Grissom students born outside the U.S. and has tripled in size in the last three years. This year about 250 of Grissom’s 771 students were invited, and only the first 40 to respond were able to participate. 

Grissom student Adrian Ibraheem is on of the many who look forward to the program all week.

“I like how you can do your homework with medical students,” he says. “I also like how we go to the gym, everyone likes that.”

OUWB researchers Nabiha Hasmi and Jeff Triska were behind the initial feasibility study (a requirement for their OUWB Refugee Health Internship), and note that Michigan is the fourth largest recipient of refugees in the U.S.

Despite a recent decline in refugee numbers, over the past decade approximately 21,000 refugees have resettled in southeastern Michigan, contributing up to $295 million to the economy in 2016 alone. Nearly 6,000 refugees have settled in Macomb County since 2009, and more than 3,300 in Sterling Heights.

Hasmi and Triska wanted to better understand the complexities of the refugee experience and its implications on refugee health. They say Grissom Middle School made sense for the project because they were able to identify the specific needs of the community, and local organizations that could provide the resources necessary to address those needs.

"Through our partnership with the Chaldean Community Foundation, we found incredible people who wanted to help out and did so by helping provide funding and volunteers for tutoring and coaching," Triska says.

The program has a strong emphasis on literacy.

“These kids are very good at math and science, but their biggest issue is reading,” says third-year medical student Mustafa Polat, a member of the program’s board. 

“A lot of them, especially if they’re refugees or immigrants, they’ve just tried to stay alive and make it, so they didn’t go to school for a few years.”

A “mythbusters” segment of the program, where OUWB volunteers address a health and wellness issue, is also proving popular for the young students. Every week covers a different topic, such as vaccines and flu shots, and students are able to ask questions they may be too afraid to in a doctor’s office.

“The original feasibility study provided a general idea of some gaps and identified a population that was in need,” says third-year medical student Caroline Vokos. “We took that and learned along the way—things they responded well to, or didn’t respond well to.”

Triska says it feels gratifying to have been part of the team that started the program.

"We knew that the need for the community was there and it was our hope from the beginning that the kids would like it, and find it beneficial enough for the program to continue," he says. 

"However, we did not anticipate the program growing to this extent."
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Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at