Volume 17 - 2008
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Medical Anthropology

Student Research

May Lead To



For Torture Survivors

Nancy Kolsti

Michael Monticino and Miguel Acevedo

Photo by: Scott Bauer

Laura Danyel Rios, a master's student in applied anthropology, is researching the needs of survivors of torture. As an undergraduate, she studied Mayan health care on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula.

Studying health care in a Mayan village in Mexico gave Laura Danyel Rios her first taste of research when she was still a University of North Texas undergraduate. As a UNT master's student in applied anthropology, she's now researching the needs of survivors of torture. The emphasis of her degree, medical anthropology, seems like a perfect fit for Rios, but it's not the field she once thought she would pursue.

Rios planned to become a physician, but when she started pre-med classes, she began reconsidering her career goals.

"I felt that medicine was missing a human element. We referred to patients by their diseases, not by their names," says Rios, who earned her bachelor's degree in anthropology in 2006 and was recognized as a Distinguished Honors Scholar in the Honors College.

At UNT, she discovered the research of Doug Henry, assistant professor of anthropology. Henry studies medical anthropology — the interaction of culture, health, society and illness, such as medical practices associated with certain cultures and ethnic groups. It is an academic field that hits close to home for Rios, whose grandparents emigrated from Mexico and who often found her upbringing in conflict with mainstream American culture.

Before she graduates this May with her master's degree, Rios is completing a program evaluation for the Dallas-based Center for Survivors of Torture, which provides specialized psychological and rehabilitation services to survivors of torture and other human rights abuses, including traumatized refugees and their families.

Applying coursework

Rios and Shimaa Dessouky, another UNT master's student in applied anthropology, are surveying and interviewing 200 of the center's clients and their service providers to offer recommendations for the current and future needs of those receiving services.

Through questionnaires, focus groups and observation of the services provided, Rios and Dessouky are gathering and analyzing information that will provide insight into medical, legal, mental health, social and spiritual services for torture survivors.

The center requested the program evaluation to identify gaps in its services as part of a plan to seek additional funding sources and to better assist clients.

Rios says more than two-thirds of the member nations of the United Nations use torture either openly or tacitly to control their citizens, with the United Nations defining torture as "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person."

"Studies . estimate that up to 30 percent of all refugees to the United States are torture survivors."

- Laura Danyel Rios

"Studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Justice estimate that up to 30 percent of all refugees to the United States are torture survivors," she says. Texas is home to more than 35,000 refugees, including an estimated 10,000 torture survivors and more than 550 asylum seekers living in the North Texas region, according to the center's statistics.

Rios says the biggest challenge to her research may be gaining the trust of the clients, particularly the survivors of torture.

"When you're in a refugee camp and trying to escape your country, you will tell your story over and over, so after a while it doesn't seem like your story. You've distanced yourself from it," she says. "So while it may not be hard for refugees to share their stories with us, it may be more difficult for those who are survivors of torture."

The Rev. Sharmin DeMoss, associate executive director of the center, says Rios' and Dessouky's evaluation is a "big bonus."

"Nonprofits usually cannot afford to have this type of impact study," she says. "We deal with clients from 63 different countries and six continents so, clearly, we needed someone to handle things extremely professionally and in culturally appropriate ways for the clients. Danyel has looked not just at the differences between the cultures, but how the cultures impact each other, in determining the best services for each person."

Mayan health care

Rios' interest in social science research began when she spent three weeks in Chan Kom on Mexico's Yucatan peninsula as an undergraduate with Alicia Re Cruz, professor and interim chair of the Department of Anthropology at UNT, and other students.

Rios visited the small Mayan village to study health care there. She observed how Mayans at the local clinic were served by the village's physician and several medicos — a position somewhere between a nurse practitioner and a physician assistant. She also went on vaccination rounds with the village midwife, a Mayan woman who acted as an intermediary between the Mexican clinic staff and the Mayan villagers.

"The villagers don't always trust doctors - they'd rather go to a local person for health care," Rios says. "It is not that the villagers prefer traditional medicine over clinical medicine — many of them feel that the health care professionals who are not Mayan or from the local area do not understand or appreciate them."

She says understanding how the Mayan villagers approach health care could provide U.S. doctors with a better understanding of how to serve rural populations in general.

"In certain parts of the United States, it's still not uncommon for a small town to have only one health care provider," she says.

Sharing research methods

This summer, Rios and Dessouky will coordinate the National Science Foundation Summer Research Methods Program for UNT's Department of Anthropology. The program provides 10 weeks of instruction of social science research methods to undergraduate students who are members of groups typically under-represented on college campuses, including students who are ethnic minorities or the first in their families to attend college. The students are assigned to UNT faculty members who act as mentors. Most come to UNT for the summer from other universities.

Rios notes the program was designed to introduce these students to in-depth research methods, helping them gain advanced study habits, experience in applied research and "a view into the varied potential of anthropological insight."

"Many of the students have shared with us that before they attended the program, their view of research and themselves was very different," she says. "In the end, they walked away with a new lens through which to view the world. We do not tell them how to think — we try to show them the many ways in which the world can be understood."

Beginning in fall 2008, Rios plans to live in Japan for at least a year and find a job working with the homeless, single mothers, orphans or another marginalized population. She may then earn an advanced degree in public health.

"Whatever I end up doing for a career, I want to feel as if my work is benefiting the greater community and to be excited about the work I do," she says. "I think I'll be fulfilled as long as I'm helping others. My support network of family and friends got me this far, and I want to give back."

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