July 10, 2023

Academic journey connects head and heart for Bachelor of Health Sciences alumna

Research done in collaboration with Yazidi community provides insight to better inform health-care providers, document genocide atrocities
Nour Hassan
Nour Hassan.

Nour Hassan, BHSc ‘21, always saw herself working at the intersection of health and social justice. As a newcomer to Canada, she experienced barriers to health when her younger sister’s early symptoms were dismissed and she was subsequently diagnosed with brain cancer, months later.

Hassan had to learn to navigate the health system and advocate for her sister’s needs, who now lives with a permanent disability. This experience inspired Hassan, who majored in Health and Society, to become a passionate advocate for marginalized immigrants and refugees, including the Yazidi community.

After suffering genocide, mass displacement, and enslavement by the Islamic State (Daesh) in 2014, many Yazidi refugees resettled in cities throughout the world, including in Calgary starting in 2017. Hassan's journey with the community in Calgary began in 2019 as part of her research practicum, when she joined Refugee Health YYC, a clinician-led research program in the O’Brien Institute for Public Health. Initially, she had no knowledge of the Yazidis or the experiences.

Sarah Welsh, left, and Nour Hassan try baking bread at the launch of the kitchen program.

Sarah Welsh, left, and Nour Hassan try baking bread at the launch of the kitchen program.

Nour Hassan

"I hadn't heard about them, and the world had turned its eyes away," says Hassan. "My supervisor, Dr. Gabriel Fabreau, showed me how my research could help this vulnerable community who really wanted their story told.”

Hassan’s research focused on family reunification, the community’s number-one priority. As her knowledge of, and friendships within, the community grew, her practicum evolved into an honours thesis documenting the mental and physical health impacts of genocide. The paper is published in JAMA Network Open.

"I was very lucky to collaborate with community leaders, including one Yazidi in Calgary and another still living in an internally displaced persons camp in Iraq," says Hassan.

"One of the biggest things I learned was that we must listen to the community, who are experts in their own experience. As a researcher, I wanted to ensure their voices were represented and their story, which has been forgotten, was accurately documented.”

Personal accounts, health records analyzed to improve care, help healing

The research required investigating years of information and health data of Yazidi patients at the Mosaic Refugee Health Clinic in Calgary. With the help of the community and expert clinicians, the research was aimed at guiding health care and future resettlement planning for Yazidi refugees and other genocide victims.

Though our methodology was simple and the output inefficient from a research perspective — it took us nearly four years to summarize the ordeals of 242 Yazidi genocide survivors — this stands among the research we are most proud of,” says Fabreau, MD, assistant professor at the Cumming School of Medicine.

“It will certainly help clinicians care for other refugees and survivors of genocide, but more importantly, it is our gift to our Yazidi patients and the broader Yazidi community, and our first study motivated entirely by patients.”

NARHC Cleveland, from left: Linda Holdbrook, Gabriel Fabreau, Nour Hassan

NARHC Cleveland, from left: Linda Holdbrook, Gabriel Fabreau, Nour Hassan.

Nour Hassan

“Most importantly, this study originated from the Yazidis’ request to document the atrocities they endured so that the world never forgets,” says Hassan.

“I’m really proud of this work and hope it can help promote community healing and potentially serve as evidence to one day hold perpetrators accountable.”

While working on the paper, Hassan also looked for opportunities to interact with the Yazidi community and to educate others about their experience. She presented to students in the Faculty of Nursing who were working with the Yazidi community on a kitchen program. Hassan was also invited by the Centre of Addiction and Mental Health to deliver a national webinar of her work to educate health professionals in the settlement, social and health sectors about the unique needs of Yazidi refugees. Finally, she presented her research at multiple conferences including the North American Refugee Health Conference (NARHC).

“As a physician and professor, one of the most powerful experiences we have is to watch a student, resident or trainee really thrive,” says Fabreau. “Watching Nour deliver a national webinar to health professionals from across Canada as an undergraduate student was one of those moments.”

North American Refugee Conference comes to Calgary

Nour Hassan

Nour Hassan.

This year, Hassan will be a member of the audience when the conference comes to Calgary this month for the first time. Shortly after that she is on her way to Toronto to complete a Master of Public Health degree. She says the credential is important to advance her advocacy work and she isn’t wasting any time.

“I’ve joined the Board of Project Abraham, a non-profit organization supporting Yazidis and other traumatized refugees in Toronto. I am chairing the advocacy committee to help push for family reunification,” says Hassan.

“Resettled Yazidi refugees are still suffering from family separations, which is an ongoing trauma that harms their health and long-term recovery. It’s a topic I’m very passionate about and hope to be able to advance.”

The ongoing plight of the Yazidi community is one of the main topics at this month’s conference. Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, human rights activist, and leading advocate for survivors of genocide and sexual violence, Nadia Murad, is the keynote speaker. She was a 19-year-old student living in northern Iraq when armed Islamic State fighters rounded up members in her village, killing many and enslaving others. 

Refugee Health YYC and the O’Brien Institute for Public Health are proudly co-hosting NARHC. You can still register for the conference. You can also sponsor a student, trainee, health-care worker or refugee to attend.

Gabriel Fabreau is an associate professor in the departments of Community Health Sciences, and Medicine at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM) and a member of the O’Brien Institute for Public Health at the CSM.