College of Medicine students provide assistance to refugees

HARRISBURG, Pa. — In the produce aisles at Harrisburg’s Broad Street Market, six Penn State College of Medicine students in a “Food As Medicine” group are finding that an initiative to help recently resettled refugee families from Syria eat healthy is about a lot more than which vegetables they choose.

“They tell me things I will never forget: bombings nearby; random people breaking glass to get inside their homes. They say they needed to save their children; they had to leave,” said Houda Bouhmam, a first-year medical student from Morocco who speaks Arabic and is helping serve as a translator between the students and the families, none of whom speak English.

Every week, Bouhmam and her fellow students meet the families at Broad Street Market and shop with them for produce as part of a “Prevention Produce” program that links at-risk or underserved community members with fruits and vegetables and nutrition education. Each family is given a voucher, depending on family size, to buy fruits and vegetables, and they express deep gratitude not only for the food, but for the company.

To walk the aisles of plenty at Broad Street Market is in stark contrast to where the families have been living since fleeing their war-torn country.

“They were kind of confused about everything. With me speaking their language, they were more comfortable,” Bouhmam said. Still, old fears linger. Bouhmam said she will never forget the day she knocked at the door of one family’s Harrisburg apartment and the mother and her children ran upstairs in fright as the father opened the door.

“It was a flashback of times past, what they’ve been through,” Bouhmam said. “My situation is in no way close to theirs — I chose to come here — but still it’s hard even for me to be so far from my family. They were very attached to their land and it’s painful to hear their stories.”

Second-year student Jen Saigal has helped co-lead the initiative with the refugee families, taking charge filling out the voucher receipts when families choose their produce, visiting the families in their homes to learn of other needs they might have, and reaching out to family, friends and colleagues to secure donations. Being involved with the program is one of the most meaningful things she has ever done, she said.

Read more about the “Prevention Produce” initiative in this Penn State Medicine article.

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Last Updated January 06, 2017