Diverse perspectives (Part 2): Immigrants’ experiences shape their outlooks on life and science

Matthew Greseth, Ph.D.
July 14, 2021
Diversity of closed hands up design, people multi-ethnic race and community theme.
Cartoon of closed hands representing diverse backgrounds. Licensed from istockphoto.com

Editor’s note: Immigrants significantly affect many aspects of our daily lives. The following series of stories highlights the contributions of a talented group of MUSC researchers. This is part two. Read part one here. Read part three here.

Civil unrest. Political turmoil. Famine. War.

To some, these events, captured in news headlines around the world, sound like the four horsemen of the apocalypse. For others, they represent a lived reality that cause significant disruptions to daily life. Family members may face unimaginable struggles and have difficulty reaching out to loved ones, leaving fathers, mothers, sons or daughters with doubt about their circumstances.

"What is happening 8,000 plus miles away for some people is too far, too distant. But it hits here at home for me, my family and a lot of people like me.”

-- Dr. Mulugeta Gebregziabher

Unfortunately, Mulugeta Gebregziabher, Ph.D., professor of Biostatistics and vice chair for Academic Programs in the Department of Public Health Sciences, is currently facing one such unimaginable world event.

Away from home but never far away
Gebregziabher’s home country of Ethiopia is facing a devastating humanitarian crisis, he explained. The Tigray region, which lies in northern Ethiopia and borders Eritrea, has seen thousands of deaths and the displacement of more than two million people since war broke out in early November 2020, following the regional election in the Tigray region. An emotional subject for him, to be sure, he often points others to an essay written by Alex de Waal that in his opinion vividly and accurately describes the situation.

While the United Nations has released two rounds of humanitarian aid, the region is difficult to access, presenting an obstacle to providing families with essential services – the war has destroyed more than 90% of the health care infrastructure – and food assistance. In fact, 5.5 million people in Tigray and surrounding areas face the highest level of food scarcity (level 5) – a level not seen since the 2011 famine in Somalia, according to the Integrated Phase Classification system. As each day passes, the impetus grows for the international community to help in resolving the crisis.

“What is happening 8,000 plus miles away for some people is too far, too distant,” said Gebregziabher. “But it hits here at home for me, my family and a lot of people like me.”

Since the conflict began, Gebregziabher has been unable to contact his family, and his story is gut-wrenching. When he, his wife and son left Ethiopia almost 20 years ago to begin his education and career in biostatistics, they could never have imagined the story that would unfold in their home country.

Leaving Ethiopia presented Gebregziabher with several hurdles. The first came from the U.S. Embassy. Embassy representatives didn’t want to give him a visa because they felt his student stipend was insufficient to support his family. Luckily, Bowling Green State University faxed a letter of support, stating that many students support families on stipends, and the Embassy eventually gave him a visa. Once Gebregziabher and his family were here, they also had to overcome language and cultural hurdles. But that did not stop Gebregziabher from becoming a successful biostatistician who leads a brilliant research team.

“The fact that I am an immigrant brings some challenges. When you think about the dynamics of teamwork, cultural things play a role,” he said. “You have to navigate those team dynamics and understand how everyone reacts to what you bring to the table. But in general, I think my immigrant status is an asset.”

Bringing together strong, diverse teams
As vice chair for Academic Programs, Gebregziabher sees diversity as a strong value and strives to be intentional in hiring diverse candidates and trainees. However, the current political, diplomatic and epidemiological climates have made recruiting international candidates difficult.

“We have an international applicant who matriculated into our Ph.D. program, and we are unsure if he will be joining us in the fall of 2021,” said Gebregziabher.

“People start to lose confidence, not only the would-be candidates but also the recruiters,” he added. “You invest a lot of time and resources to bring someone from A to B, but because of the visa process, candidates cannot join you. Can you imagine how devasting that would be?”

Dr. Gebregziabher sitting on desk. 
Dr. Mulugeta Gebgregziabher is professor of Biostatistics and vice chair for Academic Programs in the Department of Public Health Sciences.

Gebregziabher believes that if the immigration process continues to deteriorate, there will be long-term consequences because applicants will not have the confidence to apply for entry into the U.S. and will seek opportunities elsewhere. To ensure sustained, long-term change, he suggests that scientists run for positions of power within the leadership of scientific societies.

A global citizen
In addition to his collaborations at MUSC and with Veterans Affairs, Gebregziabher maintains a strong interest in global health, with collaborations across Africa. He is an investigator with an H3Africa- (Human Heredity and Health in Africa) funded global project that studies stroke in Western Africa with a focus on Nigeria and Ghana. The H3Africa project also allows him to engage in the training of junior African scientists.

While the war has temporarily halted Gebregziabher’s global health initiative in Ethiopia, he has taken this opportunity to highlight war’s impact on public health. The American Public Health Association (APHA) releases a list of priority public health issues and topics for policy makers – climate change, vaccines, COVID-19, gun violence, racism, and more – but surprisingly, war is not included. Gebregziabher has pushed the APHA to add war to its list and recently organized a panel during MUSC’s Global Health Week to address the influences of war on public health, titled Public Health Crisis of War.