Raya Zoe El-Khoury Cupler believes there are no boundaries to nursing care. Inspired by a personal connection to the plight of refugees, Raya, a junior at Chamberlain College of Nursing in Columbus, Ohio, has dedicated her time to working with refugee organizations delivering medical care to refugees of war and conflict zones in the Middle East. In addition to her global health work, Raya serves as Director North and Chairwoman of the Legislation Education Committee for the National Student Nurses’ Association, and was recently named a Johnson & Johnson Global Citizen Young Leader. We spoke to Raya about her passion for providing healthcare to disparaged populations and the advice she has for nursing students interested in global health.
NN: Why did you want to be a nurse? How did you know it was your “calling”?
Raya: Nursing came to me as sort of a rebellion: my dad is a doctor and so most people expected me to go to medical school. I've always loved working with people, but as I explored medicine I realized doctors really fix problems, not people. Nursing is about considering the holistic side to medicine, including family, socioeconomic status and all of the other factors that impact human health, and that is why I fell in love with it. It’s not just about fixing a problem in that moment. It’s about helping change a life for the better.
NN: What surprised you the most during your first year of nursing school?
Raya: If I'm honest, it was definitely surprising to confirm how real the “hype” is. If you know a nurse or nursing student, then you've probably had a nursing school meme show up on your social media feed at some point. Additionally, adjusting to "thinking like a nurse" and understanding how nursing exams work requires a lot of growing in a short period of time. It's a high-stress profession because we work with humans and making a mistake can have very real consequences, but following procedures and protocols keeps you safe, and having great faculty, clinical instructors and nursing school friends can make all the difference.
NN: Can you share a brief summary of global health work you’ve engaged in?
Raya: I have worked with delivering primary care to Syrian refugees; although, with refugees of war and limited resources, you never know what you're actually going to be doing and many emergent issues pop up seemingly out of the blue.
NN: Why did you decide to engage in global health work? What inspired you?
Raya: My mom was a child of war, and while her family was privileged in the sense that they had the resources to flee without being refugees or asylum seekers, war is war. She raised me and my siblings to be extremely conscious of the human element of wars that is often neglected in the media coverage and social dialogue. For as long as I can remember, my mom took us to protest wars and human rights issues, and to this day she remains a strong social activist.
NN: What was it like to work in a conflict zone?
Raya: It's very hard to describe working in a conflict zone to people who have never experienced conflict. I am also very cognizant of my privilege; I could have left at any time and often had security around, but that isn't the case for refugees. Refugees of war are often already from the disparaged communities of a country, because if they had the means, they would have left. Many of the people I met had to run away from homes that are now rubble to an unknown destination that may not be welcoming and could even resent their presence.
NN: What do you think students need to know about volunteering/working in global health? Any advice on getting started?
Raya: I would say start by getting to know international issues at the local level. Chances are, there are many opportunities to work on international issues in your own backyard. This gives you credentials and an understanding of the real situation. I understand the allure of going abroad and I have many friends who have done it, but I would try to also be very aware of what your presence means and does for your own community. Try to avoid “voluntourism,” and try to work with organizations that focus on sustainability. What I mean by that is it's not necessarily helpful to fly in to work for a few weeks and fly out. Yes, you may have helped some people, but as the old saying goes, “give a man a fish and he'll eat for a day, teach a man to fish and he'll eat forever.” What I've really learned is the importance of training the community, so that even when your team leaves, the healthcare services do not.
NN: Looking forward, where do you see yourself in three years?
Raya: I hope to be done with my Master's in Public Health and hopefully working at a non-governmental organization (NGO) like the World Health Organization, working on health system development for disparaged populations and volunteering my time and skills to humanitarian medical relief missions, probably still with refugees of war, although I hope by then Syria is being rebuilt by its people.
NN: Have you ever received any helpful nursing/career advice from a mentor or professor?
Raya: My mom always said, "You do it for you and not for anyone else". I never got into anything for the recognition and I think that’s what I would pass on to other students. If you let your passion drive you, there is no obstacle too high and no workload too strenuous to stop you from doing what you love.