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Hub student helps U.S. newcomers find refuge

Daniela Caride | 7/30/2009, 7:52 a.m.

Shirley Austin has been through a lot.

Her family could have been killed during confrontations between Muslims and Christians in Jos, Nigeria, in the 1990s. For seven years, she couldn’t see her mother, Josephine, who fled to the United States, afraid of local riots. She left Africa at 17 in search of safety and a chance to reunite her family.

And still, Shirley considers herself “very lucky.”

“I have my entire family here, [and] we speak English. I was very lucky in that aspect. But not everyone is like that,” she says. “It’s nice to know you are in a new place, that you don’t face the same dangers, but now there’s a whole new set of … obstacles to go through.”

So when Shirley got her green card in 2006, she decided to help other refugees.

“It just came to me. I want to help people who’d gone through the same thing, having to leave your country,” says Shirley, 25, sitting on a brown couch at her carpeted apartment in Dorchester on a recent Saturday afternoon.

After a quick search on the Internet, Shirley found Catholic Charities, a nonprofit social services organization that offers nearly 140 programs in the greater Boston area and is always looking for volunteers.

As a refugee herself, Shirley was perfect for the job, according to Maureen Wagner, volunteer coordinator for refugee and immigration services at Catholic Charities.

Wagner said she’s been very impressed with Shirley since their first meeting, when Shirley announced she wanted to volunteer for three years.

“Her willingness to commit for such a long time, it just blew my mind. And she had such a huge heart,” says Wagner.

In a matter of days, Shirley was visiting a Sudanese family in Lynn who came to the United States in 2005 after spending six years in a refugee camp in Ethiopia.

“When the Sudanese family met me, they were so happy because I was from Nigeria. They were like, ‘Oh, she gets us!’” says Shirley, gesturing happily.

Now, Shirley helps the family do a bit of everything: pay bills, speak English, do homework.

“When you say he is big, I want you to say how big,” Shirley says to Sudanese refugee Joseph Basher, 18, who is writing an essay about a monster for his 12th grade English class. While Shirley talks to Joseph, she waits for his 16-year-old brother Zuruf to finish his essay on pyramids.

For two hours on a Sunday afternoon, Shirley also helps the boys’ two sisters with their math homework, the children all seated around the living room table at their apartment. The six siblings live there with their mother, who barely speaks English and doesn’t know how to read or write in any language — a situation Shirley is working to remedy.

“Right now, we are learning the vegetables,” says Shirley.

Wagner says Shirley’s work with the Bashers is invaluable.

“The amount of time she has put in for them, it’s just amazing. And she always has a smile on her face,” Wagner says. “She is such a role model.”

Shirley likes volunteering so much that she is going one step further: she intends to use her knowledge of dental care to expand her social work. A third-year student at Boston University’s Goldman School of Dental Medicine, Shirley is arranging the first meeting with a family from Somalia, one of the 27 families she will help in the course of her project for the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, which started last May.

The fellowship supports a hospital in Africa and helps underserved communities within the United States. It awards volunteer projects developed by health care graduate students, who receive $2,000 to support 200 hours of community service, achieve a health need and promote preventive health care.

“[The money] has helped a lot, especially for gas, going to Lynn,” Shirley says.

As part of the program, Shirley will visit the Somali family and another four Burmese families individually on a regular basis until April, when the program ends. She will help them fill out paperwork to start seeing dentists at the Lynn Community Health Center. Many refuse to go to doctors, Shirley says, because they can’t communicate with staff and fear facing both pain and cultural barriers.

Shirley will also teach them to clean their teeth properly. But her greatest challenge will be to convince them to go to the dentist regularly, which she says is not part of any of the refugees’ native culture.

“I don’t even remember seeing a dentist office in Nigeria,” she says. “Well, yes, there was one, and he was always very bored. His office was really close to my mom’s optometrist office, and he … used to come in, sit and chat. And he had nothing to do because no one used to go to the dentist unless it was an emergency.”

Because of that, refugees are arriving with serious dental issues. One of the Burmese women Shirley will soon meet needs nine root canals.

“I am still trying to figure out how I am going to help her,” Shirley says, sounding optimistic despite the odds.

Shirley will hold a dental education fair for the other 22 families. She is now looking for a place for the meetings, where she will teach them how to brush and floss their teeth, as well as to engage in better eating habits.

One of her ideas is to use disclosure solution on some of them. The solution shows plaque on teeth after people wash their mouths with it. This way, she figures, she can show them how bacteria harm teeth and introduce them to preventive care.

“Most of the [dental] problems that we see here in the U.S. … [are] a result of eating lots of carbs and lots of sugars,” she says.

Thinking how to make those initiatives last in the community, Shirley decided to complement the project with brochures on dental health (how to improve eating and cleaning habits) and the first dental visit (what you have to bring and what to expect). The brochures will be translated into Bantu and Karen, languages spoken by the refugees from Somalia and Myanmar.

“Having information in their own language makes it personal,” says Shirley. “It helps ease the process of moving to a new culture.”

Even after her fellowship ends in April, Shirley plans to keep helping the Sudanese family in Lynn.

“I’ll definitely stick with that because I love it. … They are hungry for me to help them,” she says. ”They are part of my life now.”

Shirley says she understands what they have been through since they moved to the United States — like them, her Christian family was persecuted by Muslims.

Shirley’s mother, Josephine, integrated the women’s Christian organization in Jos, Nigeria, and bore the brunt of the persecution. Josephine fled in 1994, finding a safe new home in New York, where two of her daughters were already studying.

But she was a world away from Shirley.

“She just wasn’t going to come back, and I was going crazy. I just really wanted to see my mom,” Shirley recalls.

Shirley stayed with her father in Africa until 2000. When they decided to leave, scared of violence and tired of being apart, American authorities did not accept documents as proof that Shirley and her father were part of Josephine’s family. So, Shirley remembers, they had to bring “a huge pile of photo albums” with them.

After finishing high school, she began college at the State University of New York-Albany, and two years later she enrolled at Cornell University, where she graduated in 2004 with a bachelor’s degree in biology. She thought about going to medical school, but finally decided to be a dentist.

“I want to have a job, but I don’t want my job to be my life,” she explains. “And I think with being a doctor, you have to dedicate a lot of your life to serving, and I just didn’t think it would be fair for me to do that if I wasn’t as willing.”

Even though she is studying to graduate from dental school in 2009 and tutoring children from affluent families to pay the bills, Shirley says she will tutor more refugee families if Catholic Charities assigns her.

“I really don’t feel like it’s too much. I have time. I went out last night,” she says, laughing.

Shirley says she doesn’t feel like community service is an obligation; to her, it’s as enjoyable as hanging out with friends. And after all she’s been through, maybe more than most, she understands how important it can be.

“When I first started working with [the Sudanese family], I would be driving home and I would be crying because it felt so good doing the work,” she says.

“I almost felt like it was selfish because I would feel so awesome afterward. I felt totally fulfilled. It feels great.”