IAAB 2007: Children of Persia Workshop

Slides from these presentations will be available on the IAAB website soon! For now:

This workshop is by Dr. Mahnaz Motevalli, VP of Children of Persia. Motevalli is a teacher at Johns Hopkins’ medical school.

The first 45 minutes will be formal, and at the end there will be discussion.

Children of Persia (COP) intro:
The organization was started in 1999. It’s non-profit and charitable, and the mission is to “promote the well-being of needy Iranian children by dedicating to provide health care, education, and social services.”

It is run by volunteers who pay to participate.

Health projects:
1. Construction of medical facilities in Zabol, chosen because the need for a medical center was greatest there… World Health funding provided to Iran is for re-building, and there were no pre-existing centers there.
2. Medical assistance and networks: creating channels for health care for Iranians who need it.
3. Medicine drive
4. Mobile medical unit
5. Health education in Iran and the U.S.
6. Medical expense fund

1. Educational assistance in Iran
2. Educational supplies in Iran and the U.S.
3. College fund in Iran and the U.S.

Social Services:
1. Families in Crisis: working and street kids in Iran, food and clothing drives worldwide, and disaster relief in Sri Lanka and Iran

Economic sanctions mean that all resources can’t be spent in Iran, but there is an internship project in Iran for the Zabol clinic and the Iranian working and street kids project. The Zabol process was a pilot project for a year.

What are the challenges and strengths of interning in Iran?

Question: Was just COP building the Zabol facility or was it done collaboratively?
Motevalli: Started working with an NGO but now are working with Zabol University medical school to sustain the project.

First group of interns:
Yousef Tehrani: These interns worked at “Khane-Ye-Mehr” (House of Kindness), a school for working and street children. The time-frame in Iran was challenging because things happen more slowly in Iran – logistics are different, interns have no set roles and interns have to step up and self-determine their experiences.
Sara Khaki: We had to be self-starters and came up with plans. Storytelling was a successful one; the best way we found to get closer to the kids, an icebreaker. Even outside the classroom, some students asked us to read stories to them. We asked kids to paint after they heard stories. Throuhg their paintings, the way they used and applied colors, we found that most of them tended to support themselves. In order to improve cooperation and make the school more attractive, we had them garden. English classes fulfilled the curiosity of the children. We needed to be flexible, in case they were not engaged. Interns should keep an eye open about the environment in which their internship is taking place. Interns need to be open-minded about the roles of religion, tradition, and poverty. Clothing can have a major impact on the way children perceive interns.
Shima Khaki: Not having a set plan gave us the good experience of working in a less structured environment. A trial-and-error experience made us more courageous. We also made effective networking connections between outsiders and the school. No matter what the area of your concentration, having a good network opens new horizons of opportunities. Feeling and living the situation had a big impact on us. Being there gave us a new sense of reality. We’ve seen street kids and heard a lot about them before. We thought they would be harsh and hard to work with, but when we got there, we found them very friendly, very sweet, they wanted to communicate and play games. This dispelled stereotypes for us.
Ramin Ostadhosseini: One of the aspects of the internship is what we get out of it. It’s a huge challenge for us. One big thing was awareness of your surroundings. One of the games we played with the kids was “Zoo” in which all the children were assigned an animal – that didn’t go over too well [the connotations are different in Persian]. On our first day, the COP liaison in Iran told us about Safi, an 8-year-old who was sold off to work as a shepherd. The school worked to bring this child back and place him in the school. Since he returned, he’d changed and become very aggressive. The first day I got here, he drew a picture of me; he drew huge ears on me, then big eyes, and so forth, until he’d scribbled out the whole drawing. This sort of underlying aggression was surprising to me, and as we interacted with him, his behavior changed. On the last day, he gave me a drawing he’d made of me, teaching class with a flower in my hand. To see this transformation, that was one of the most rewarding experiences. I’d realized I’d actually been able to do something, change a life. I don’t want to make it sound so big. To wrap it up, despite all the challenges associated with internships in Iran, it’s definitely difficult, the rewards are definitely worth it.

Sarvnaz Lotfi: Promoting International Collaboration Between Iranian
Ten Iranian-Americans went to Tehran in Summer 2006. Each morning they went to Masih Daneshvari Hospital in Tehran, which is a public hospital that serves primarily low-income Iranians. They worked in various clinics, offices, and hospitals in the city. Research among the interns included HIV/AIDS research, a documentary of Iranians with TB, understanding health policy in post-revolutionary Iran, and analysis of several addictions and dieases from 1900 – present, and more.

Being Iranian-American is very different from being just Iranian, but traveling daily gave me confidence. At the end of our research, a lot of us found that we have a great will to return to Iran. At the end of my time in Iran, I didn’t even care to return to America, but I felt the privileges of the Iranian diaspora. I became aware of how lucky I am to be able to leave Iran and have opportunities.

After going to the Tehran office of the UN, the group worked to create a network that would send students from North America to the Eastern Mediterranean region. They met with students in Iran to collaborate and set up a board of students in Iran to work with students in America. Sharif, Amir Kabir, and Tehran University were included. The network is REACH: http://www.ghinmeca.com/reach.shtml.

This year, 20 students are going to Iran. Within the next 10 years, the group hopes to build a strong North American-Iranian network.

Danesh Mazloomdoost: Information Seeking Behaviors of Physicians-in-Training in Iran
Mazloomdoost worked independently, and will outline how he accomplished his project. Short term objectives were to look at physicians-in-training and how they seek information. Long-term goals include improving systems and access in medicine in Iran.

In Iran, travel is about a reference system and word-of-mouth – that analogy will recur in this talk. Mazloomdoost’s background is in business and moving into medicine, he was surprised by the inefficiency of the medical system in the U.S.

In planning, finding mentorship, getting through redtape, and finding funding were huge issues. Politically, it was hard to get project approved; Johns Hopkins was reluctant to let him go. Ultimately, they withheld salary for a month and penalized Mazloomdoost. Mentors also backed out. Redtape was difficult in the U.S. and Iran; if you don’t know the right people in Iran, you can get caught in a loop and spend a lot of time trying to get somewhere. There are also language and cultural barriers: a word of advice he got was to brag and boast about his accomplishments instead of being modest. There are problems with power struggles as well. But ultimately the project was done and is in the process of submission.

The benefit of the project, beyond its conclusion, were the contacts and friends made, future liaisons, and courage gained in the process.

Interning in Iran:
Presenting work from Summer 2006 in Iran; they worked at the National Institute of TB and Lung Diseases in Tehran.
Atieh Novin: We’re all interested in pursuing research in the field of public health and medicine. As part of the preparation process, we decided to find research projects and got funding from Children of Persia. We worked on two different projects. Logistics were helped by the website daftar.org.
Jasmine Ainetchian: We all spent from two to three months in Iran, and stayed with our immediate or extended families, though in some instances it’s possible to arrange alternative housing. The transportation factor was a big deal – in Tehran it takes forever to get anywhere. Taxis are ubiquitous and there are official and unofficial taxis; you have to be careful in what cab you’re hailing and where you’re going. We did experience the Metro, which was a really good experience for us. It goes a lot of places and it’s brand-new and cheap. On our first time on the Metro, we learned a lot about why women don’t ride it, because we were seated in the men’s section.
Narges Alipanah: Our activities consisted on working on our own separate research projects as well as attending events given at our center. There were doctors from Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Iraq and we also watched surgeries. Atieh and I worked on TB and TB/HIV. We studied the socioeconomic status of patients, reviewing their files and interacting with the workers. All the workers were volunteers and the patients were mostly Afghan refugees.
Jasmine: Sarvenaz and I worked in Southern Tehran, at AIDS clinics.
Atieh: Narges and I worked in Zabol with Afghan refugees; there is a lot of TB and congo fever, a high incidence of infectious diseases.
Sarvenaz Nouri: We also got a chance to go to various sites in different cities. One was Isfahan Cardiovascular Research Center. The other was the IVF Center in Yazd, one of the frontrunners in Middle Eastern reproductive medicine. We faced a lot of challenges in Iran. We weren’t familiar with the working environment in Iran; the timelines in Iran are longer, the pace of work is slower. When approvals in Iran are granted, they can be taken away without explanation. We also had to hide that we were foreigners. On a positive note, we all completed our research and reconnected with our roots, and then founded REACH [see above for link]. It’s important to be well connected to go to Iran for independent research. We weren’t so prepared, but now we realize that the prep process should include researching ongoing projects and creating relationships with mentors in Iran. It is now becoming very trendy for students to go to Iran to conduct internships. There’s a difference between visiting Iran and working in Iran, though; we have to direct the trend to promote productive connection between Iranian and American professionals and research.

What are your thoughts on how we can connect U.S. student groups with those in Iran?
Sarvnaz Lotfi: REACH exists to help people go to Iran to do research.
Motevalli: Selecting interns that are willing to go to places that are perhaps not so desirable is difficult. But it’s important to be selective in picking interns. We are not going there to “improve lives.” They know a lot in Iran; so the contribution and knowledge of the intern is really important. The first step is to educate groups here and then set up networks. Networks have to be sustainable. And funding is important.

How did girls in Iran feel limited in their research, particularly outside Tehran?
Jasmine: Teaming up with someone with stronger language skills helped me, but being a girl working in Iran was not such a limiting factor. Sometimes there were people or climates who were not as welcoming, but I think that could happen anywhere. When we were in Kermanshah, which is smaller, we didn’t run into any problems, probably because people really wanted to talk about their problems.

Do you all hold Iranian passports? What are logistics?
All the panelists had Iranian passports. There are no concerns in getting visas if you’re American; if you’re Iranian you need to get an Iranian passport.

Is there an impact now because of the U.S. approach to Iran on sanctions on your work?
Danesh: Absolutely. It’s easier when you’re going with an established organization. When you’re donig it alone, it’s extremely challenging. Public institutions can’t endorse anything to do with Iran because of sanctions. There are means of circumventing, you just have to be persistent. Demonstrating academic credibility will cause doors to open.

Did anyone take Farsi classes in Iran? Also, I didn’t quite understand about boasting within Iran?
Yousef: Dehkhoda Language Institute is a really great place to learn.
Sarvnaz: Rosetta Stone forces Farsi on you in a nice way.

When you did survey research, did you administer that in Farsi? Did you need to explain questions? Did you have a translator?
Jasmine: We wrote in English and translated to Farsi.

If you’re doing outcome studies, how did you gather data prior to your research?
Jasmine: We did literary research initially and utilized our mentor, who had done preliminary research and that really helped.

Danesh: There are a lot of excellent professional organizations, and that is a good place to start to network.

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