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Bridging the Divide

photo of student researcher Alizay Jalisi

It’s not hard to imagine that the life of an undocumented Latino immigrant in this country can be stressful and perilous, particularly given recent changes in deportation laws. And Senior Alizay Jalisi, double majoring in molecular and cellular biology and Spanish, doesn’t have to imagine their challenged lives, as she has learned about them first-hand.

Since 2015, as a way to combine her interests in health care, Spanish, and—as someone whose parents were born in Pakistan—the immigrant experience in America, she’s been attending weekly Baltimore meetings of the mental health support group Testimonios, run by the Centro SOL (Salud/Health Opportunities for Latinos) a health care initiative organized by Johns Hopkins faculty.

“A common theme across both the men’s and women’s sessions is a very real fear and anxiety attached to deportation,” Jalisi says. “They are afraid of losing touch with their families and being sent off to a country that isn’t really theirs any more, or one they might have fled because of violence.”

Jalisi says other sources of stress that can erode mental well-being among the undocumented include a fear of persecution and an inability to turn to the police for help: Women express fears of sexual assault, and men worry about being robbed or beaten up. Health insurance is almost unheard of, despite many participants working 12 to 15 hours a day. Jalisi’s interest developed into a research project evaluating the Testimonios program to learn more about the demographics of its participants, their barriers to health care, and ways to improve outreach.

“I worked with the Centro SOL advisory board to design a short, 15- to 20-minute telephone survey,” Jalisi says. “Some questions were geared towards just getting feedback on some of the logistical aspects of Testimonios. We also asked participants why they chose to attend the program—were they struggling with depression or substance abuse? Most of them felt that the program had been effective in giving them a space to talk about their stress and symptoms and in providing a physical connection to other community resources.”

As a side project, she started a blog where people tell their personal stories as immigrants in Baltimore. Photographs are included, though for a variety of reasons, Jalisi thought it best not to depict faces. So she artfully photographed close-ups of their hands instead. This aesthetic compromise has a power of its own. “I personally think that people’s hands can say a lot about them,” Jalisi says “For example, a lot of the male participants are painters so they had paint under their nails. Some of the women had very work-weary hands because they work long hours in restaurants. Creating the blog was really helpful for me to humanize the statistics that I had generated from the survey.”