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Pharmacy Student Helps Hundreds of Afghan Refugees in Washington

PULLMAN – Third-year pharmacy student Ghazal Meratnia does not particularly enjoy the spotlight. She likes to keep things low-key, but in many ways, she’s an everyday hero for hundreds of Afghan refugees living in Washington state.

Aside from being a full-time pharmacy student at WSU, Ghazal has served as a certified medical interpreter for Washington state for the last 10 years. Most of her clients are Afghan refugees who recently arrived in the Spokane area and are receiving medical checkups.

“It’s been an amazing journey,” said Ghazal whose family immigrated more than 10 years ago to the United States from Iran, a country that shares a border with Afghanistan, but is still culturally different. Ghazal is fluent in Farsi, which is similar to a dialect spoken in Afghanistan known as Dari. “Because I’m not from Afghanistan, and a bit of an outsider, I feel like the refugees I work with are more willing to open up to me,” said Ghazal, who now calls Spokane home.

Her journey as an interpreter has taken her to all areas in the medical community including hospital birthing rooms where she has witnessed three lives come into the world. She says the nature of her work is to bridge the communication gaps between providers and patients and become an advocate for the families she serves, “You get to see physicians’ frustrations and you get to see different ways to approach patients and patient care,” explained Ghazal who says the experience has changed her perspective as a health care provider.

Working as an interpreter has allowed her to connect with health care providers across Spokane and the Inland Northwest. Through constant interactions and interpretation sessions with physicians, Ghazal has also gained confidence when speaking to physicians on rotations, a common fear pharmacy students face during the experiential learning phase of their education.

“As a female interpreter, [Ghazal] is invaluable with our women’s health visits,” said Georgina De la Garza, one of the physicians Ghazal has collaborated with at Unify Community Health to help with medical checkups for refugees. “What sets Ghazal apart from traditional interpreters is her health care background as a pharmacy student. This means she can better explain medications and conditions to our patients and always asks intelligent questions about obstacles they might encounter with their treatment.”

“Ghazal is the flagship of what the next generation of these Afghan refugees can be,” said Bob Redmond (’65), a retired pharmacist who was put in charge of managing the medical affairs of one family who fled Kabul in August 2021 when the Taliban took over the capital of Afghanistan.

Ghazal and Bob met while she helped an Afghan refugee family of nine (a husband and wife with their four daughters and three sons) translate during many medical visits at Unify and CHAS clinics. The two have been working together since March to help this family get acclimated to their new home in the Pacific Northwest. According to Bob, Ghazal has been a role model for the family. “What’s inspiring about this whole story is how she relates to those kids. They look at her and they can see their future possibilities.”

Since she was a child, Ghazal always dreamed of becoming a health care provider. When she received her letter of admission from the college, she cried. She graduated with her master’s degree in public health from Eastern Washington University and her entry into pharmacy school brought her one step closer to her passion for working in health care.

“WSU gave me a confidence of being good enough as a pharmacy student by giving me a same day admission and a scholarship…My message to all refugee, or immigrant students, or pretty much anyone, is to never give up. No matter how many closed doors you face, just keep believing in yourself while working hard and staying honest and magic will happen. I wholeheartedly believe in that, and that’s what I learned from my parents originally but then experienced it in life for myself, too,” she said.

Ghazal will be starting her third year in pharmacy school this fall. She hopes to continue to hone her medical advisory and communication skills to better serve future patients. When she is not studying to become a pharmacist, completing a rotation, or working with refugee families, Ghazal interns at Walgreens.

“No matter what position I end up in, an independent pharmacy in a small town, a clinical pharmacist at a huge hospital, or just a human being on a daily basis, I want to continue to be the change I wish to see in the world, by spreading kindness, love, trust, honesty and improving health equity. I want to be a motivator for my patients, even when they do not have a support system or a reason to continue to improve their health.”