Imagine that one day you’re working in the heart of London, UK and then the next you’re travelling to Jordan amidst the Syrian refugee crisis… That just begins to describe the experience of Health Policy PhD student Ahmad Firas Khalid, who spent three months this summer in London, UK at an internship with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders. He writes about his experience as a Queen Elizabeth Scholar and shares his insights.
My name is Ahmad Firas Khalid but people call me Firas. My parents were confused and could not decide on my first name so they gave me two first names: Ahmad and Firas. Thank you parents for making my life so simple!
You likely don’t know me, so let’s start there… Before coming to McMaster, I lived in more than eight countries. I’m now a Health Policy PhD student, but have always wanted to be a flight attendant. Like I said, a simple life! Friends describe me as: fun, loveable, mostly crazy and sometimes smart. I take pride in that, as it is in my crazy moments that I get inspired. After my experience this summer, inspiration is certainly not something I’m lacking…
It all started by taking a leap of faith and getting on a flight to London, UK for a three-month internship with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) – an organization that I have always admired and respected. I wanted to examine their approach to transferring research knowledge into policy and practice during the Syrian Refugee crisis but had no idea exactly where this journey would take me. I certainly didn’t anticipate it to be the journey of a lifetime.
It’s hard to narrow down all the incredible experiences, but here are some of the most important lessons I learned and greatest moments I experienced during my year as a QE scholar:
1. Don’t overthink it, just act on it
One of my favorite quotes from my International Masters of Health Leadership program at McGill University was by director, professor, and friend Henry Minztberg. He said “paralysis by analysis”, in reference to healthcare managers who spend so much time and energy in analysis that they become paralysed by the process and thus little action happens. Ever since hearing those words, I made a promise to myself to think carefully, weigh out my options, but then take a decision and move forward. I knew that doing an internship at MSF meant that I would have to leave immediately after my comprehensive exam for my PhD studies. This meant that I had to be organized and disciplined. But life does not work that way. Stuff happens and we have to adapt. Adapt is what I did. I booked my flight immediately after my exam, frantically packed for the trip, arranged for travel insurance, exchanged currency, and hoped for the best. Looking back, I realize that if I had overthought the decision, I would likely not have gotten on that flight. Moving forward, I vowed to just take that leap of faith and trust that hard work will pay off.
2. Be Humble:
It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we know everything there is to know. Until, that is, we are faced with exceptional talent, new information, and new contexts that make us quickly realize how much we still have to learn.
Within a week of being at MSF, I was offered the opportunity to fly to Athens, Greece to attend their International General Assembly. I wanted to be there to support my friend Joanne Liu in her re-election campaign for International President. Traveling with Joanne from the airport, she shared with me her vision for the organization. I could not help but think “I need to work harder”. The incredible energy, dedication, discipline, and desire to be selfless in her actions humbled me and inspired me to do the best I can to give back in some way or another.
In that first week, I also met a number of individuals whom have made incredible contributions around the world, including one person who spent three months in South Sudan caring for vulnerable populations. It was impossible not to be humbled after hearing of his daily struggles in trying to get medicines to their ill patients with the constant fear of being shot at if they left the left the safety of their camp! These experiences have inspired me to continue to grow, but will also remind me to be humble as there is always new lessons to be learned.
3. Innovate, engage, excel
My QE journey took an entirely unexpected turn when I was invited to present my work at MSF’s European Operations Meeting in London. This was an important milestone for me because I felt that all my hard work during my internship was finally going to be heard by people who have the ability to make change happen. My favorite memory from this meeting was when a senior member told me that they are seriously considering implementing the recommendations I proposed. The recommendations I put forward for MSF would change the way the organization makes decisions that have the potential to change the lives of vulnerable populations for the better. All of a sudden, the term “knowledge translation” was being used throughout the organization. I left the presentation excited, buzzed, and full of energy.
Thinking about this meeting on my flight back to Canada, I realized the importance of always being willing to be innovative, bold, and courageous because it is only through ambitious ideas that change can happen.
Three weeks later, I was on a flight to Vancouver to present at the Fourth Global Health Symposium. Having the opportunity to interact with so many health stakeholders, I truly realized the value of engaging with as many people as possible to share knowledge and best-practices. Research can no longer function as a stand-alone entity in the larger global health world. We must find ways to engage with citizens, organizations, and government.
4. Community is everything
Just when I thought my journey with QE was over, I was informed that I was selected to be part of a Canadian delegation traveling with Community Foundations Canada to London, England and Johannesburg, South Africa. The Canada-UK Community Foundation Dialogue was designed to provide a platform for learning and exchange between two movements with a long history of shared experience and collaboration. The gathering brought together foundations and partners from both geographies to discuss topics including: bilateral collaboration, the Sustainable Development Goals, and our shared interest in building communities where everyone belongs.
Our time in the UK was followed by the Global Summit on Community Philanthropy and post-conference experience in Johannesburg. The Global Summit is a decennial conference that brings together community philanthropy leaders representing our global movement of more than 1,800 place-based foundations.
One of my favorite memories in Johannesburg was when we visited the apartheid museum. I am not a museum person, but somehow this museum evoked emotions in me that I never knew were there. Learning more about the plight of the South African people, the struggles of Nelson Mandela, and the future direction the country made me reflect on my own journey as a new Canadian citizen. I am of Palestinian descent, born in Jordan, and raised in the United Arab Emirates. I left home at a young age in pursuit of higher education, immigrated to Canada in my twenties and became a Canadian citizen only two years ago. I got emotional at the apartheid museum because I started to think about the Syrian refugees and the struggles they are facing on a daily basis. I stepped out of the museum as tears started flowing to take a moment to calm down and gather my thoughts. While sitting on the bench, with the sun glaring in my eyes, a rush of pride came over me. I was so incredibly proud to be Canadian. An integral part of our Canadian identity is the responsibility we bear to find new prospects for inclusion and participation in order to reduce the societal gaps for vulnerable populations. I am proud that Canada has taken a leadership role in dealing with the Syrian refugees, which left me even more determined that I must give back in some way. I must give back to Canada through my scholarly work to improve the lives of vulnerable populations everywhere and to play a leadership role in ensuring that Canada remains a true example of what an inclusive society looks like.
On the last day of this incredible experience, I was asked to reflect on what we have experienced and the two words that kept running through my head were: overwhelmed and grateful. I was overwhelmed by the wealth of knowledge and expertise I was exposed to during the week-long trip and grateful to be part of an exceptional group of individuals dedicated to sharing knowledge, strengthening relationships and building bridges between efforts to cultivate strong, resilient and inclusive communities. I look back at this experience realizing the crucial role that scholars play in connecting knowledge to community needs. Now more than ever, academics can no longer function in a silo structure but rather as part of a larger collaborative model that connects research evidence to community needs. It is only through those mechanisms that we are able to improve population health and address societal needs. Regardless of where we all come from or our backgrounds, we can find common ground and connect on our desire to improve the lives of others. My goal now is to utilize this unique global experience I was honored with and bring it back to Canada to push dialogue further and faster.
The hardest thing I experienced during my internship was seeing first-hand the effect of the Syrian refugee crisis on children. I traveled to Jordan and visited MSF’s one-of-a-kind hospital performing reconstructive surgery for Syrian refugee burn victims. What shocked me to the core was seeing children running throughout the hospital laughing and smiling while recovering from burns and war-trauma related injuries. They were not sad. They were not devastated. Instead, they were full of hope, optimism, and smiles. They were resilient. I left the hospital heart-broken but also with a feeling of urgency behind disseminating my research to a wider public audience, and engaging the academic community, and policymakers with the findings of my report. I now understand that that the way I can make a difference to the Syrian refugees and their plight for security, protection and safe passage is through my research. I got on that flight back to Canada with one final thought: my research must transcend geography and political borders.
To every student out there looking to make a difference in this world through their scholarly work, this article is dedicated to you. I am grateful for the life-long friendships I have made throughout this journey and I thank every single person that has had a major positive impact on my journey. I end this blog by a quote from the great Nelson Mandela that I read on my trip to Johannesburg. This quote really struck me because it speaks to my inner desire to always be true to myself and my hope that my research one day can have a lasting impact on society. “The first thing is to be honest with yourself. You can never have an impact on society if you have not changed yourself”.
Thank you to the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship program and the McMaster Health Forum for my journey, that has left a lasting impact on me and changed the way I see my place in this world.
Ahmad Firas Khalid
** Firas has recently also been invited by Universities Canada to debrief his Excellency the Governor General about his internship and related experiences at the Converge Leadership Conference in Ottawa. The aim of the conference is to kick off the sesquicentennial for the university crowd, and to bring together youth, business leaders, innovators, decision makers and more to talk about Canada’s successes, issues and of course where we would like the country to be in 50 years.
Interested in learning more about the Queen Elizabeth Scholarships in Strengthening Health Systems? Visit www.mcmasterhealthforum.org or email the program co-ordinator at firstname.lastname@example.org.