Sonam Lama - Albuquerque, New Mexico

Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico

Native American Acoma people have inhabited this 365 feet high Mesa-top mountain settlement behind me (note the tiny houses in view) for more than 800 years, making this the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America.

Career goal: Continue to do research and work with vulnerable populations, particularly refugees and immigrants.

Internship outline: As a graduate research intern, Sonam worked with The Refugee Well-being Project (RWP) at The University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. RWP is a program that pairs refugee families (from Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Burundi, Rwanda, and Democratic Republic of Congo) with undergraduate students who assist them in mobilizing community resources, obtaining advocacy skills and providing empowerment. Sonam assisted the project in developing a cross-cultural measure to identify mental distress in various refugee groups and helped validate its psychometric properties. She also began a project, which aims to identify coping strategies employed by refugees who have been separated from their families, and she is currently working on the manuscript.

Value of experience: I have truly admired the rich atmosphere of cultural exchange, mutual learning and respect that RWP has fostered in working with refugees. Many refugees who initially participated in RWP, have gone on to obtain their degrees and have rejoined the program as research staff and community advocates. Others have started their own non-profits supporting and empowering newer refugees as they arrive. During one of the state quarterly refugee meetings, I was able to witness the gathering of state refugee coordinators, resettlement agencies and staff from the health department, public school system and university, discuss current challenges and propose solutions. That experience highlighted the importance of a supportive system and collective action that is much needed in today’s refugee crisis. I think above all, this experience really gave me the opportunity to build genuine relationships, for which I am very grateful.

Best moment/experience: It was very refreshing for me to see a space where refugees are not just welcomed, but have been given the equal opportunity, right to voice their concerns, and remain actively involved in the decision-making. Although refugees around the world face challenges in making their transitions to a new country, I was lucky to be able to witness the impact of a program focused on capacity building in the community. Many refugees, who initially believed they had nothing to offer, were now being valued in the community, as leaders, advocates, and entrepreneurs – and that was truly special. 

Funding source: Weinerman Fellowship