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Sarah Khan

Sarah Khan

Helping Humanitarian Relief Workers

In the early 1990s, Sarah Kahn was employed as a social worker at a Wall Street brokerage house. While she was well paid and felt she was making a difference, when Kahn went home each evening, she read about the raging Balkan war and the atrocities suffered by the region's citizens.

"For some reason, it struck a deep chord with me," she said. "I thought I'm going to go there, even though I had never done any international work." She networked and found an opportunity with the International Medical Corps. In 1994, she flew to Bosnia where she served for a year as the coordinator of a psychosocial program for internationally displaced children and families.

Fast forward to today, Kahn is a trauma therapist and staff wellness consultant for international organizations and an NYU Silver School of Social Work doctoral candidate. She was recently named co-director of the new Psychosocial Care Unit for Doctors Without Borders/Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF-USA). The unit will provide support to aid workers in advance of and returning from time in the field -- work Kahn has experienced first hand.

Since her career shift, Kahn has been dispatched to hot spots around the globe. After the war, she returned to Bosnia in 1997 to develop psychosocial programs for communities during exhumations of mass graves. She helped create an intervention to inform the community of the process of exhumation and identification. She also debriefed forensic anthropologists working with the human remains and personal effects found in the graves.

Reflecting on an experience in Bosnia "emblematic" of the work in the field, Kahn recalled an older woman from a local village brought in to the makeshift morgue. In the days before DNA labs, beneficiaries -- family members of people killed in the war -- had to identify their loved ones purely from items found in the mass grave.

"I just remember her alone, where all these colorful remnants of clothing were draped over a chain-link fence, blowing in the wind like flags," recalled Kahn. "She was walking slowly, looking at each item of clothing and artifact, looking for something that may have belonged to her son."

Kahn feels privileged to be able to provide some small support for people going through such profound experiences. "It feels like one can never do enough because the needs are so great, but so often the beneficiaries are grateful for the smallest things."

Kahn's work shifted in 2004 from assisting the survivors of wars and natural disasters towards helping the international humanitarian workers. In the last six years, she has been to Liberia, Afghanistan, Northern Iraq, and Tunisia.

In the 1990s a movement started to gain recognition of the psychological impact humanitarian work has on aid workers. Recent studies by several academic institutions and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that aid workers are soft targets for insurgents and terrorists. Additionally, these workers experience a variety of day-to-day stresses that come from tight living and working quarters, security restrictions, exposure to the suffering of others, and the unfamiliarity of cultural norms.

"I am very moved by the dedication people have to make a difference in the world, despite the toll it takes on them," she said. "I feel very honored to support those helping others."

Looking for some space to reflect on what she had encountered combined with an interest to teach about what she has learned over the years, Kahn enrolled in the Silver School's doctoral program in 2006. She has completed the course work and is focused on her dissertation -- a qualitative study on the experiences of people seeking asylum in the United States on the basis of sexual orientation and gender.

A highlight has been the support from faculty, particularly her dissertation chair, Deborah Padgett; committee members Tazuko Shibusawa and Martha Gabriel; as well as James Martin, who has recently completed his term as director of the doctoral program. "I have found the experience at NYU incredibly rich and rewarding, and I have been inspired by the support of my cohort and my professors, who have given me a tremendous amount of encouragement. They set the intellectual bar very high, and I love it."