UB’s Human Rights Initiative shares its expertise

Jacobs School faculty mentor talks with Syracuse clinicians about performing medical evaluations for asylum seekers

Release Date: February 24, 2021

Kim Griswold standing in front of plant.
“This is an experience that solidifies our students’ connection to the community. It allows them to alleviate suffering and to fight for social justice. ”
Kim Griswold, MD, Professor of family medicine and psychiatry
Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. — Since its inception in 2014, the University at Buffalo Human Rights Initiative, a medical student group, has played an important role in helping to document and assess evidence of torture in people seeking refuge and asylum in Western New York.

The group, based in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at UB, is one of the most active in the Physicians for Human Rights’ national network of medical school organizations that train medical students to do forensic exams on asylum-seekers.

Recently, the UB group’s students and faculty mentor were asked to assist their counterparts in Syracuse and at SUNY Upstate Medical University as they go about developing the same capabilities to help asylum-seekers in Central New York.

On Feb. 24, Kim Griswold, MD, professor of family medicine and psychiatry in the Jacobs School and the UB group’s faculty mentor, gave a virtual talk on “Insights and Best Practices for Medical Evaluations in the Context of Immigration Applications,” as part of a panel presentation for potential medical volunteers in Syracuse.

“The Jacobs School group is an established Physicians for Human Rights clinic,” said Griswold. “Because we’ve been doing medical evaluations for years and have been training our students in this important work, we were asked to provide some assistance as the Syracuse effort gets off the ground.”

Certified by Physicians for Human Rights, Griswold, also a physician with UBMD Family Medicine, works with local clinicians in Buffalo to document and assess evidence of torture and trauma in refugees and asylum-seekers. She also provides testimony at asylum hearings.

This work can save lives, Griswold noted, since individuals are more likely to be granted asylum in the United States with documentation of the physical or psychological evidence of the torture they experienced.

As mentor to the student group, she is helping to train the next generation to do this work. UB medical students learn to conduct physical and psychological medical exams. They act as scribes, carefully recording the harrowing and terrifying details of what the person has been through. Students also attend court hearings.

There are currently over 90 UB medical students trained as scribes for the Human Rights Initiative, and 17 students from all four classes in the Jacobs School comprise the initiative’s executive board. These are experiences, Griswold says, the students find enormously enriching.

“This is an experience that solidifies our students’ connection to the community. It allows them to alleviate suffering and to fight for social justice,” said Griswold. “It is a joy to teach students who really have their eyes open to the world and who want to make things better.”

The main goal of a medical evaluation is to document physical or psychological torture by an individual seeking asylum in the U.S. Through the years, Griswold has testified in court in 15 cases. A case typically takes five years or more to go through the entire process.

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