CEHD student poses with members of a Liberian group she organized.Zamzam Dini (second from right) with members of the Organization for Women Empowerment NGO. Photo credit: Courtesy of Zamzam Dini

FSOS grad student leads international initiative in Liberia

Results offer insights into how best to support immigrant and refugee communities.

Zamzam Dini, a Family Social Science (FSOS) doctoral student specializing in Couple and Family Therapy, flexed her clinical practitioner skills in Liberia last summer by leading workshops for parents and young women on healthy relationships. The experience gave her great insights that have been invaluable in her work as a trauma therapist at the Minnesota Trauma Recovery Institute (MNTRI), where she often is in contact with the immigrant community.

Dini traveled to Liberia representing the Women’s Initiative for Self-Empowerment (WISE) in a partnership to facilitate capacity-building training and healthy relationships education to community service providers in Liberia.

The Liberian initiative was a collaboration between WISE and the Liberian-based non-governmental organization (NGO) Organization for Women Empowerment (OWE) and funded by a U.S. State Department community-building grant.

Dini created and managed four Parent Encouragement Program workshops that help parents navigate the K-12 school system to boost their engagement. Some of the topics covered in the parent workshop included adverse childhood experiences (ACES) & trauma, social and emotional learning in children, attachment, and child development.

“I think something that will stick with me as a future educator is to always remember the wealth and knowledge that is in the room with you,” she says. “I was blown away by the discussions that we were having during the parent workshops and honored to be among them. The ideas that were being shared were some of the most fruitful I’ve witnessed in a classroom.”

In addition, Dini led seven healthy relationships workshops with 19 girls from three different groups and four NGOs to help them identify healthy/unhealthy traits in a relationship and how to intervene to ensure they feel safe in the relationships they create with family, friends, and partners. Topics included women’s empowerment, girl’s empowerment, and healthy relationships.

Dini said the experience directly related to her research on understanding refugee trauma across generations.

“I value outreach and connecting to immigrant and refugee families directly, which is what led me to work with WISE and our parents,” she says.

Dini, whose family emigrated to the U.S. as refugees of Somalia’s civil war when she was two years old, grew up in Seattle in a vibrant community of immigrants and refugees. She understands deeply the challenges facing these communities.

“I grew up seeing trauma and pain, as well as resilience and strength in the communities around me, and I knew I wanted to become a clinician from a young age,” she says. In college, she majored in psychology as an undergraduate and discovered marriage/couple and family therapy (M/CFT) while researching graduate programs.

“I felt it was the better match for me and my worldview,” she says. ”M/CFT has a systemic worldview and considers relational/contextual factors in understanding people that psychology simply does not do systematically.”

As a trauma therapist at MNTRI, she meets with individuals, couples, and families in treating chronic PTSD and trauma, as well as everyday life stressors. While some of her clients are immigrants, she hopes to work more extensively in those communities after finishing her doctorate degree in family social science. As a student, she has received the David and Karen Olson Fellowship and the Janice Hogan Fellowship.

Her goal in her doctoral program is to help bridge the gap between academic research and immigrant and refugee communities. Some of her main areas of research interest include working with immigrant and refugee populations in relation to trauma and studying the mental health of immigrant and refugee populations who have experienced war, migration, and familial separation.

“Taking what we are learning in the classroom in our graduate programs and disseminating it to the community at large is a responsibility that we all have as researchers,” she says. ”I want to be involved in opportunities where I can disseminate research that is about or might benefit immigrant and refugee communities to these communities directly.”

She says whether that’s partnering with nonprofits, conducting workshops, or speaking at events geared toward these communities, she wants to focus on research that addresses issues that are directly related to immigrant/refugee communities. These communities are often ignored or underrepresented by researchers, and her goal is to bring awareness to the experiences of these communities in her own research. 

Her next project for WISE will be to develop a new curriculum and facilitate parent workshops for new Afghan refugee arrivals in the next couple of months. She plans to incorporate the internship requirement in the program for this new project as well.