Alumni Profile • Abi Tan '02
Fulbright takes traveler 'home' to the displaced

Abi TanAbi Tan '02 is surprised to find herself in Jordan again. A world traveler, she has otherwise preferred to visit countries new to her rather than return to places she's been. "The only explanation I have," Tan said, "is that I feel at home in a country with so many displaced people, because I've always felt a bit culturally displaced myself."

Ethnically Chinese, Tan was born in the Philippines, grew up in Japan, and then came to the United States to attend Calvin. Now a medical student at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, she applied for and was awarded a Fulbright scholarship for the 2006-07 school year to study developmental delays among children living in Jordan 's Palestinian refugee camps.

Tan's love for the country began while she was at Calvin. History Professor Bert de Vries invited her to join a group of students on a summer project conducted jointly with Birzeit University to make recommendations for a watershed in the West Bank.

"I didn't know anything about water assessment," Tan said, "but I wanted to travel to the Middle East." The next summer she was in Jordan again with de Vries and "ever since," she said, "I've been looking for a way to get back."

Besides working on the watershed project, as a Calvin student Tan volunteered at the Palestine Hospital in Amman. De Vries introduced her to his friend and colleague Nasri Khoury, a neurosurgeon and the hospital's medical director. "He was very welcoming," Tan said.

Four years later, when Tan was applying for the Fulbright, it was Khoury who helped again. He put her in touch with one of the medical directors of the U.N. Relief and Works Agency, which administers the refugee camps. One after another, doors to health care professionals have opened, Tan said.

With the help of nursing students from the University of Jordan, Tan now interviews Palestinian mothers in Amman's three refugee camps when they bring their young children to camp clinics for immunizations. She asks them 10 simple questions that screen for a wide range of developmental disabilities, including language, cognitive and motor skill delays.

Simple as it is, this sort of screening is not widely conducted in the United States, Tan said, much less in a part of the world where it's work to get children basic nutrition. Yet it's important, she added, "because addressing these delays early brings about better outcomes, and in the long run that's necessary to the overall working of a society."

With outcomes in mind, Tan is also looking beyond the survey. She works with the community health nursing program at the University of Jordan to establish education groups in the camps for parents of children with milder delays that could be addressed at home. She also asks camp medical directors and treatment centers outside the camps if they would provide further testing and therapy for young children with more serious problems.

"I could be stirring up a hornet's nest," Tan said. "The survey results could well increase their budget needs, and finances are already strained. But I'd be ethically compromised if I screened these children then left without making any recommendations for their treatment."

Tan acknowledges that seeing the gap between the need for services and the ability to provide them is difficult. But difficult as it is, she said, "It keeps my faith at the surface of my mind where I have to deal with its hard questions on a daily basis. And, too, working with these populations is very rewarding."