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Personal Health in a New Land: The Experiences of Burmese Women in Greeley

burmaImagine being a woman in a foreign country. You develop concerns about your health, specifically about personal matters you’d rather keep private. Now consider that you don’t speak your adopted country’s primary language, nor do you have access to the healers you have learned to trust.

This is the perspective UNC student Alexandra Krumtum realized was at play in Burmese women living in Greeley, Colorado. An anthropology and political science student in the Honors Program at UNC, Alexandra was motivated to examine Burmese health experiences. Having previously completed an Americorps internship with Greeley’s nonprofit organization, Women2Women, which had instituted a refugee sewing group, the Creative Community, Alexandra had become profoundly appreciative of the perspectives of immigrant women.  Her advisor at UNC is Dr. Whitney Duncan.

The Creative Community gave Alexandra the opportunity to interact with Burmese women. Alexandra stated, “I deeply enjoyed spending time with each woman and learning about her unique journey….In working with the refugees, I became acutely aware of the social, economic, and political disparities that Burmese participants face. I also became aware of the incredible healing knowledge and traditional assets Burmese individuals have in their community as well as the complex beliefs about health and illness that they share.” 

The internship also fueled Alexandra’s curiosity. Interviewed during the planning phase, Alexandra reported her plans to use ethnographic fieldwork in order to develop an understanding of Burmese women’s reproductive health experiences. She hopes to interview Burmese women about health-related topics, including their beliefs about healing, reproductive histories, past experiences with health services, access to community health services, and lifestyle practices related to reproductive health.  She will also compile community resources for reproductive health in an effort to determine which services are currently available. Additionally, Alexandra intends to interview medical professionals in the community to gain insight into their understandings of Burmese women’s reproductive health beliefs, needs, and practices. 

Alexandra has already discovered that health is a highly individualized experience that influences all aspects of a woman’s life. She has become more aware of the impact of distinct perspectives about health, especially during interactions between separate systems—for example, formal medicine and traditional methods of healing.  She hopes her research will yield compelling perspectives that can educate other citizens of Greeley, especially those in the medical community, about refugee women’s health.  She believes it is important for policy-makers and medical professionals to establish services that are individualized and culturally sensitive.

Alexandra shared, “My favorite aspect of research is having the opportunity to meet people that are outside of my usual community. I have been incredibly fortunate to speak with some very inspiring women who shared significant aspects of their lives with me. It is a privilege to be able to research reproductive health because it is so influential in a woman’s life.” 

Alexandra will remember the generosity of the Burmese women in the future as she pursues her dream of becoming a medical anthropologist in global health projects. In the meantime, she will finish her bachelor’s degree and pursue a graduate program in medical anthropology and public health. Alexandra is interested in working on projects that eliminate health disparities in our complex, interconnected world.     

Not only has Alexandra been learning about culturally diverse medical experiences, she has been gaining insight into herself as a scholar. She articulated her insights: “I have learned that there are many valid and unique ways through which individuals and cultures view the processes of healing. It is sometimes easy to forget in the U.S. that our health care system is bound by beliefs. Medical anthropology is my area of emphasis, and I find health to be at the center of each person's experiences. Even more so, I find that community health and patient care are determined by cultural beliefs and practices. To me, this makes my research meaningful.”