Child protection and mental health specialist Alexandra Chen '06 received the 2017 Community Service Award in an All-School Assembly in Elfers Hall on April 14. Chen, who speaks 10 languages, including Chinese, Arabic, and French, has worked with refugees in conflict and post-conflict zones – most recently, as a mental health and psychosocial advisor to UN agencies on the Syria crisis. Currently, she is pursuing a Ph.D. at Harvard Graduate School of Education, studying the impact of refugee trauma on children's brain architecture and cognitive functioning.
In her address to the community, Chen credited Hotchkiss with starting her on the path to humanitarian work. Her interests as a student led her to travel around the world — to the Amalfi coast with the music program, to Cyprus with the Speech and Debate Team, to South Africa on a Round Square Exchange, and to Senegal with the French department. Through each of these experiences, Chen, who came to the School as a prep from Hong Kong, gained a deep appreciation for different cultures.
A talented musician, she played both piano and harp. But it was in Instructor in Philosophy and Religion Lou Pressman's international affairs and ethics class when she penned an essay, "Moral Obligations to Others in Extreme Poverty," that her interest in humanitarian efforts became evident. Chen had spent time volunteering in HIV/AIDS clinics and orphanages in Africa as a teenager; as an undergraduate, she first developed a commitment to the Middle East. She visited the Holy Land as a Christian tourist and became aware of her own ignorance of the conflict, the occupation, and the emotional oppression. It was also the first time she had ever met children who didn't smile. It broke her heart, but it also inspired her to take action.
During her talk in Elfers, Chen urged students not to "look away" from conflicts in other parts of the world. "Don't scroll past the news stories about things that don't directly affect you," she said.
And she told students to make the choice to be kind, starting first with themselves: "Only when you make the choice to be kind to yourself can your kindness be authentic for someone else."
After earning her A.B. and A.M. at Harvard, Chen worked for several years in the Middle East and Africa. Previously, she worked on child protection and trauma therapy projects in Israel-Palestine, Jordan, Ethiopia and Somalia; on education and peacebuilding in Lebanon and Iraq; and on Islamic legal reform in Egypt, among others. In June 2016, when she was named Alum of the Month, she described how she copes with what she witnesses.
"The truth is I have enormous faith in the children, who are strong and loving in ways that amaze me. I also have the privilege of working with social workers and teachers who have been doing this work for 20 or more years. If they haven't given up, I have no excuse to. What I struggle with the most, and consider the ugliest sides of humanity, are the righteous justification of carnage, pervasive cynicism, and apathy for another's suffering."
She also described how fear can be overwhelming for refugees. Last January, Chen was stationed on the shore of the Greek island of Lesbos, supporting an emergency medical team there to receive refugees arriving on boats. "In just one morning, 25 boats arrived, another dozen to the south. That's 2,000 refugees. One family of eight — aged two to 69 years — included a brother and sister with severe mental disabilities. The sister had never spoken a word. As she sat crying on the rocks, drenched from waves that nearly drowned the boat, I wrapped her in a blanket and hummed an Arabic song to calm her because she was so terrified. Imagine being in her shoes."
War after war, she said, has left millions displaced, marginalized, and vulnerable — Palestinians, Iraqis, and now, Syrians. Today, a refugee is likely to be displaced for more than 19 years.
"That's a lifetime. The psychological impact of being homeless, document-less, right-less, dignity-less in a country that doesn't welcome you goes beyond the trauma of wartime destruction — beyond the narratives of PTSD," she said. "The long-term patterns of discrimination and violence and neglect have led to what we call toxic stress. For children, especially the very young, this can physically affect brain architecture and have a lasting detrimental effect on their cognition, behavior, and capacity to learn by reducing the number of potential neural pathways in the brain. This is what I want to prevent."
Her experience in war zones has taught her to live each day as if it were her last — and not obsessively plan her life in 15-minute increments. "I have learned to embrace discomfort and uncertainty — to guard my heart from hatred and cynicism. The pathological optimist in me gladly remains."