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Psy.D. student receives Schweitzer Fellowship, creates project to uplift immigrants, refugees

Stories | 06.13.23

For doctoral student Sahar Al-Najjar, serving refugee and immigrant communities is personal.

Her grandfather migrated to the U.S. from Palestine in the late 1960s, followed by his wife and their children.

“My mother, in some sense, was a second-generation immigrant, and I’m third generation,” said Al-Najjar, who is currently in the Adler University Doctor of Psychology in Clinical Psychology (Psy.D.) program. “I understand many of the nuanced struggles of coming to a new country and the barriers immigrants and refugees face, including accessing mental health services.”

So when she was chosen this spring to be among the 28 doctoral students receiving the 2023-24 Albert Schweitzer Fellowship by the Health & Medicine Chicago Policy Research Group, she knew her fellowship project would have a clear focus: serving the immigrant and refugee population.

Each fellow is tasked with designing and implementing a year-long project that addresses various urgent needs facing Chicago’s underserved communities.

Since April, as part of her Schweitzer Fellowship project, Al-Najjar began conducting psych-educational group sessions at the Marjorie Kovler Center, a Chicago-based program of Heartland Alliance International that provides services to vulnerable populations who recently arrived in the U.S.

“My drive and passion to continue to uplift immigrant communities has always been the center of my work,” said Al-Najjar. “I see the people who I love and my ancestors in the communities that I serve.”

Photo of Schweitzer Fellowship recipients

Twenty-eight doctoral students receiving the 2023-24 Albert Schweitzer Fellowship by the Health & Medicine Chicago Policy Research Group.

Putting theory into practice

Located in the far north side of Chicago, the Kovler Center provides integrated treatment and services for vulnerable populations, including asylee, immigrant and refugee adults, children and families, unaccompanied minors, survivors of forced displacement and trafficking, and immigrant and refugee survivors of crime once in the U.S.

“At Adler, we’re encouraged to emphasize our social responsibility, social justice theories, and putting it all that theory into practice,” said Al-Najjar.

How is she doing that? She’s running three closed groups targeting three different generations of immigrants and refugees at the Kovler Center. With about 10 people per group, Al-Najjar conducts weekly group sessions with adolescents, adults, and the elderly. The groups allow clients to share their stories, struggles, and experiences.

“The Center has given us a safe space to create a collective dialogue,” Al-Najjar said, adding that the group members will remain with her for an entire year. “It’s clear that having their voices heard has been very liberating.”

‘We all have stories’

Named in honor of famed humanitarian and Nobel laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer, the program encourages students to become lifelong leaders in service. Collaborating with existing community organizations, each fellow will launch a community-based project, providing 200 hours of service.

This year’s 28 fellows came from 11 schools, 11 disciplines, and 19 academic programs. Al-Najjar was the lone student fellow from Adler University.

“Serving the underserved is something we’re already doing at Adler through our practicum and my doctoral program,” she said. “This fellowship allows me to expand on that existing work.”

Al-Najjar said she chose the Kovler Center due to its focus on providing services to refugees. There was a need to conduct group psych-ed sessions, and she was more than happy to fill that gap.

“My groups give these immigrants and refugees a platform and space to ask questions, to feel safe, to cope with emotions and grief, find ways to navigate, and provide the tools they need and how to use them,” she said.

Although she leads the sessions, Al-Najjar said she approaches her work at the Kovler Center on a human-to-human level.

“I’m never an expert on someone’s lived experience, and I’m always grateful when someone trusts me to sit with them and unpack their baggage,” she said. “We all have stories. And being able to provide that platform, for me, it’s been a gift. And in fact, I find myself learning from them.”

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