Leaders in Belonging 2024: Awardee
Amina Sheik Mohamed
Director and founder of the Refugee Health Unit, UC San Diego Center for Community Health
A passionate and gifted leader, Amina Sheik Mohamed confronts the entrenched barriers to health equity faced by refugee and immigrant communities, striving tirelessly to uplift the voices, perspectives, and needs of these populations. Through her transformational leadership at the UC San Diego Center for Community Health, Amina founded the Refugee Health Unit (RHU) and later collaboratively developed the San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition (SDRCC). These collectives are being replicated throughout the state and share a foundational vision that Sheik Mohamed has initiated: the recognition that those impacted by health inequities must have a leading role in deciding how to address their needs. This ethos is key to Sheik Mohamed’s success as she promotes approaches that amplify community voices and ethnic community-based organizations to lead with solutions. Sheik Mohamed’s work, which incorporates initiatives ranging from peer-based workforces to community advocacy to systemic policy changes, elevates health outcomes and fosters a sense of belonging by ensuring that systems are responsive to and reflective of the communities they serve.
"We need to create an equitable system that recognizes the full humanity and cultural richness of everyone and ensures that refugee and immigrant communities have a leading role in deciding how to address their needs.”
- Amina Sheik Mohamed
Advancing health equity through community-driven initiatives
If there’s one way to describe Amina Sheik Mohamed, it’s that she is committed to learning and sharing.
Sheik Mohamed is Founding Director of the Refugee Health Unit of the Center for Community Health at UC San Diego’s Altman Clinical and Translational Research Institute. She began her career as a translator in health clinics, working with immigrant patients. There she saw how a wide variety of factors contributed to health outcomes, which inspired her to earn a master’s degree in public health with a focus on community health.
Sheik Mohamed works with refugees in San Diego and across California—people who have come from their country of origin under challenging circumstances, often due to war. While these communities are often defined by the hardships they’ve experienced, Sheik Mohamed is quick to point out, “Our communities are resilient. As much as we know there are challenges, we also know that they are strong.”
As a refugee herself, Sheik Mohamed understands what it’s like to have to adapt to a new culture and a new set of systems that can be extremely difficult to manage. Seeing a need for more thoughtful engagement, she helped launch the Refugee Health Unit at the Center for Community Health to help refugee communities better navigate the many obstacles to receiving quality health care. “Our communities experienced trauma in their countries, escaped, and then had to learn how to have their needs met in a very complicated system,” she acknowledges. “We’re trying to help make that process smoother for them.”
Recognizing the untapped wealth of knowledge and expertise within the community, Sheik Mohamed co-founded the San Diego Refugee Communities Coalition to unite several ethnic community-based organizations, facilitating mutual learning and joint efforts to address shared challenges. Launched right before the pandemic, the coalition has organized successful vaccination campaigns, including drive-through clinics and multilingual resources, to ensure community members felt safe and comfortable when getting vaccinated.
To deepen the coalition’s impact, Sheik Mohamed helped form a Community Health Worker program to recruit and deploy individuals from various refugee and immigrant communities to learn more about people’s needs. This peer learning space allows participants to discuss issues related to the social determinants of health, as well as housing, education, and other related issues.
The key to it all, says Sheik Mohamed, is an understanding of the complex and interconnected nature of providing services. “No one can do it alone and we need each other. We need a multi-sector focus to serve this community. The only way to succeed it is if we all work together, learn from each other, and share best practices.”
If that sounds like a lot of work, Sheik Mohamed is undaunted. “I'm never bored. It’s always challenging to learn something new,” she adds with a smile.
Sheik Mohamed is relentlessly focused on collaborating, exchanging information, and then putting that to use to help people. Thanks to her, refugees arriving in San Diego have a valuable place to turn for information, quality health care, and can begin to start a new life.