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MTSU students stage health fair to aid refugee neighbors in Smyrna

A new MTSU student organization is planning a second health fair for refugees in need of nutritional education and assistance.

Advocates for Community Engagement, or ACE, will stage the fair with help from Community Servants, a nonprofit, faith-based organization, from 3 to 5 p.m. Friday, April 17, at 124 Jeb Stuart Drive in the Wherry Housing Cooperative in Smyrna.

Many of the 400 Nashville-area refugees of an ethnic sect called the Karen live in the community near the Smyrna Airport.

MTSU students provide health, hygiene and nutrition information at an October 2014 health fair at the Wherry Housing Cooperative in Smyrna. The Advocates for Community Engagement student organization plans a second fair for local residents April 17. (Photo submitted by Denise Bates)

MTSU students provide health, hygiene and nutrition information at an October 2014 health fair at the Wherry Housing Cooperative in Smyrna. The Advocates for Community Engagement student organization plans a second fair for local residents April 17. (Photo submitted by Denise Bates)

The Karen have fled southern and southeastern Myanmar in droves for years because of what they claim to be ethnic cleansing on the part of the government. The U.S. State Department has accused the ruling Myanmar regime of oppressing the Karen for their religious beliefs.

“These particular refugees have had little access to education,” said Dr. Denise Bates, an associate professor in MTSU’s Department of Health and Human Performance.

“So many of them came into the United States with no skills and no education, and they don’t speak English.”

The agencies slated to provide services at the April 17 health fair include the Saint Thomas Mobile Health Clinic, Rutherford County Health Department, Nashville International Center for Empowerment, Interfaith Dental Clinic and Smyrna Fire Department.

Under Bates’ guidance, the students arranged for numerous agencies to provide informational literature and resources at a fair in October 2014.

More than 350 people attended that fair, and more than 225 got free flu shots, said Bates.

Dr. Denise Bates

Dr. Denise Bates

The upcoming fair will feature a book van, nutrition classes, dance classes, free bottled water from Sam’s Club, games for children and a drawing for a 35-pound bag of rice.

Bates said the Karen and other refugees frequently resort to cheap, processed fast food because they can’t afford fruits and vegetables.

“They can’t even afford to eat like they ate in their own countries, because typically they grew their own foods, or the (refugee) camps would grow foods that were a little more nutritious,” said Bates.

Brittnie Neal, a Murfreesboro senior with a double major in health education and nursing, elaborated on her involvement with the service project.

“When I realized how greatly the Karen refugees needed community support, I knew I wanted to try and enhance their quality of life by connecting them with local and valuable resources,” said Neal, who also serves as project director for ACE.

Bates said this kind of service learning enables students to gain real-world experience that expands their worldview.

“It’s a win-win because the kids are learning how to apply what they’re learning in the classroom out in the field, and then the community benefits from that,” said Bates.

For more information, contact Bates at 615-898-2893 or denise.bates@mtsu.edu or Community Servants at 615-223-1391.

— Gina K. Logue (gina.logue@mtsu.edu)

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