Student Spotlight: Batool Behnam

May 6, 2024

Kabul, Afghanistan

Master's student at the School of Public Health, concentrating on Global Health and graduating this year

Swearer Engagement:
Community Partner Graduate Assistant

Batool Behnam, Graduate Assistant with Swearer Center’s community partnership team and current master's student at Brown’s School of Public Health, is concentrating on Global Health and graduating this Spring 2024. Through research, teaching and community services, Behnam’s dream is to reduce inequalities among communities.

“I've always been interested in community work and building relationships.” Reflecting on what brought her to Brown and informed her concentration choice, Behnam shares, “I love my work when I know the people that I serve.” She describes her approach to public health, “It’s not just sitting in back of a computer. Relationships matter because public health is concerned with everything, including health, social and economic disparities and inequalities, as well as your mental health.”

Laying out her thesis, Behnam explains why she chose to focus on storytelling as a mental health therapy for Afghan refugees in Rhode Island and how it resonates with her personal journey.

“I did my research in Rhode Island because I am myself from Afghanistan. I have been through a lot; it was challenging to cope with a new environment. You're questioning your identity or building a new identity to get another status. So, I did this research. I know my culture and what people think about mental health; it was close to my heart and to my journey. A lot of my friends and people around me can relate to how much of a stigma there is around mental health, so I tried to see how people think. Then explore what they think about storytelling.” 

Elaborating further, Behnam describes volunteering as a translator for an organization that led mindfulness and meditation for groups of Afghani women. “It was interesting when they were asking me to translate breathing exercises and meditations.” She explains how this experience highlighted the gaps in currently available mental health care practices, saying, “A lot of women in Afghanistan are not educated. They cannot read and write. I'm trying to translate what they're saying but the women are laughing because they don't understand [the purpose] and the one who's leading the meditation does not understand what they're saying.”

Behnam explains that popular current mindfulness and stress reduction techniques can lack cultural relevance and sensitivity. Recognizing that U.S. citizens often come from more privileged educational backgrounds with more access to and familiarity with current therapy practices, she emphasizes the need for a holistic and empathetic approach that listens to its community.

Behnam illustrates how oral storytelling may increase access to culturally sensitive mental health care by integrating elements familiar to a community rather than imposing unfamiliar methods. “‘Take a deep breath’ is helpful, but really strange to introduce to someone in their 40s for the first time [in their whole lives]. I'm giving them pen and paper to draw their feelings, but they’ve never held a pen for their entire life.”

Speaking about her own experience, Behnam shares, “[As a refugee] I already have a lot of challenges in my life, even if I want a solution and I want to access support, therapy as a concept itself should not challenge me. So, I explored storytelling as a mental health therapy for Afghan refugees because storytelling is already accepted within the community. We are in the community, and everyone appreciates it. And if it can be a solution to address the mental health needs of this population, it would be a huge support in helping people to thrive and survive in this new place.”

When seeking on-campus employment, Behnam was specifically interested in a role that involved working closely with community organizations. She joined the Swearer Center as Swearer’s Community Partnership Graduate Assistant. In this capacity, Behnam has been instrumental in boosting community engagement by establishing strong relationships, managing crucial communications such as the monthly Community Partner Newsletter, providing technical support to partners, and organizing events. 

Aiming to enrich her academic experience further, Behnam explains how her role in community-engagement-focused project management provides a vital window into hands-on collaborations with local organizations.

“I was interested to know more about community partnership with the University; what the processes are and what the relationships are like. I wanted to know the details. Being at the Swearer Center gives me the opportunity to know how relationships are built and what these relationships are like. What benefits are the university or we as students getting from this community partnership and how much benefit are the partners getting from the university resources?”

Acknowledging students' often temporary residential status, Behnam highlights the critical role of staying informed and active, underscoring how students and temporary residents can significantly contribute to ongoing community engagement efforts.

“What is going on in Providence and in the community you live in? What are the issues that people are working on? What initiatives already exist in that community? If you are a person who wants to solve a problem or address an issue, it's a great place to be to know what organizations are already in place and to know what issues they're addressing.”

Having worked closely with Behnam for two years, Elena Vasquez, Assistant Director on Swearer’s Community Partnership team, appreciates Benham’s considerate approach to the work, saying, “Batool is an independent thinker and is always making connections to her passion and her studies.” Noting the significant contributions Behnam has made to streamline processes and communications, Vasquez shares, “We were able to relaunch our Community Partner Newsletter from quarterly to monthly with Batool onboard. She has been crucial to supporting our work in Salesforce and keeping it up to date with partner and programming information. Our time working together for the past two academic years has been a wonderful and mutual experience for both of us.”

As Behnam approaches her graduation with an MPH from Brown’s School of Public Health this semester and looks forward to continuing her work, she stresses the importance of cultural competency for any effective community engagement. “I believe communities themselves have a solution for their problem. But we need to figure out and use that solution.”


Learn more about getting involved with the community through Swearer as an undergraduate or graduate student here.

Learn more about connecting as a community partner here.