IHO – Share Your Story with Dr. Khaled Almilaji


This month it is our absolute pleasure and honour to have the opportunity to interview Dr. Khaled Almilaji, a Syrian physician, humanitarian and public health advocate who received the most prestigious award, Canada’s Governor General’s Meritorious Service Medal in December of 2017.

Dr. Almilaji who has started his Master of Public Health program at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island in US on a student visa in fall of 2016, after returning back from a UN Meeting that he had just attended in Turkey, was denied re-entry to US due to Trump Administration’s travel ban. Fortunately for him, he was then invited by the Howard Hu, Dean of the Dalla Lana School of Public Health IHPME  at University of Toronto to continue his education in Executive Master of Health Informatics, which he then joined in fall of 2017. Dr. Almilaji has worked closely with World Health Organization and United Nation, and along with his colleagues Dr. Dahman and Mr. Cameron founded the Canadian International Medical Relief Organization (CIMRO) in order to provide the essential medical supplies and training to frontline healthcare workers during the six year long Syrian civil war. In Syria during the outbreak of polio in 2013, Dr. Almilaji and his team also coordinated the delivery of vaccines to 1.4 million Syrian children. Currently he is fundraising for his new project, the new Underground Syrian Hospital: Avicenna Women & Children Hospital (https://www.facebook.com/care4syriankids/)

Diva: It is really a pleasure to have you for this month with IHO-Share Your Story Series, and we are very grateful for your time to share your story with us. My first question would be how would you describe your feelings growing up and living in Syria and now seeing how this beautiful country with amazing people has to suffer from such inhuman circumstances?

Dr. Khaled: Thanks for having me! What is happening in syria is accumulative effect of corruption and dictatorship, sooner or later people will demand their rights , but syrian people had expected more efficient support from the international community, which unfortunately didn’t happen then and they have been left alone.

Diva:  As you have enrolled in Executive Master of Health Informatics, what are your next career goals?

Dr. Khaled: In general I am hoping to share my field experience with highly skilled academic personnel and experts to deploy their knowledge and skills to solve more grave problems in developing countries. For myself, until mid 2019, that is when I finish my master hopefully, I will be able to decide if I will continue gaining more academic experience or want to go and serve my community in the field. I am still managing my team in Turkey and Syria full time while I am studying full time here too.

About Your Work

Diva: Would you like to share with us about the work you are involved in, specifically about CIMRO, and Underground Syrian Hospital: Avicenna Women & Children Hospital? How do you and your team provide healthcare support and services to those who have suffered from war in Syria? What are some of the challenges you face in providing such services?

Dr. Khaled: By now it has been more than 7 years that I have worked with the Syrian crisis and I would say that this has enabled me to understand the requirements and needs my community very well.  My projects were a result of the deep analysis of the field needs and knowledge of available resources and potential donors and stakeholders, which allowed me to create projects that are meeting the needs perfectly. I co-founded an early warning alert and response network in northern Syria to monitor the communicable diseases, and it was funded by Italian government and Gates foundation. I also co-founded an initiative to create a team of engineers who should focus full time on building the underground facilities since 2014. Similarly, I co-founded a regional health information system in northern Syria with couple of local organizations and colleagues which facilitated the collection of data in the war zone in Syria in the field from health facilities. I am working now on application of telemedicine services in a referral hospital in the field in Idilb.

Your Appeal from International Community

Diva: If you would imagine that the world would listen to your voice, what would you share with them about Syria and its crises?

Dr. Khaled: What happened in Syria might happen to any country in the world, international community can’t still close its eyes from miseries of suppressed people in many countries in the world. They have to stop supporting foreign policy decisions that depends only on political and economical benefits, and start considering human rights and democracy more seriously.

Diva: I saw that you spoke at TEDxUofT 2018: Deconstruct, would you like to share your topic with our audience?

Dr. Khaled: Volunteerism is critical, irreplaceable in any healthy community, city, or nation.  But the power of volunteerism is much greater than that, on a global scale. Some institutions wouldn’t replace volunteers with paid staff, even if they had the money to do so. Because volunteers provide a service that is qualitatively different. They create a positive atmosphere,  an irreplaceable environment, have a social impact far greater than that provided by a professional paid staff. Volunteers can form a critical and powerful force. A stakeholder that has huge influence and that can rival and balance the world’s great powers. Therefore when we volunteer, we become members of this international community of volunteers. So, if UN fails to act. The international community of volunteers can step in. If your government fails to act it’s time for the immense power of volunteers to take action. If every one of us does something, every one of us acts in his or her own small way, we can and we will make huge difference.   

Diva: How do you see the future of healthcare in Syria, and what will be some of your recommendation for building the healthcare system of this country?

Dr. Khaled: Syrians are creative people and they always can figure out a way to use very limited resources to provide good services. Once they have the ability to build their institutions again in a democratic environment, they will be motivated to use their dedication and creativity in the post-crisis phase.
Diva: Is there anything else you would want to share with us? Would you want to share any other insight to aspiring future doctors, or those who want to pursue a profession in healthcare?

Dr. Khaled: Let’s serving the global community be always part of any doctor’s scope of work, the world needs all of us to participate in solving the world problems.

Side Question:

Diva: What is the most important thing for a living a life of impact where every morning you wake up passionate about what you can do for the greater good of humanity?

Dr. Khaled: It has always been a great feeling I had when I saved the first life. The first time I helped a kid and saw the appreciation in his parents eyes. It is always the feeling you will have after the first true experience of helping others.

Diva: We are really grateful for taking the time to share your insights which we are sure will be the source of guiding our future medical doctors and those who want to pursue a profession in healthcare!

Diva Turial and IHO Team

February Edition: Featuring Dr. Furmli – IHO Share Your Story Series

It is a pleasure and honor to have Dr. Suleiman Furmli with us this month and to listen to him as he shares his story with us. We hope it will be a great opportunity for many of you who are interested in pursuing a medical career, to learn from him as he walks us through his journey to medical school. (By: Diva Turial)

Society designs and encourages people to be “workers” not “dreamers”. Dr. Furmli

Let’s see what Dr. Furmli has to say…

Diva: Dr. Furmli, would you like to share a little bit about yourself, which medical school did you go to, your area of specialization and what do you do currently?

Dr. Furmli: I’m the eldest of four siblings and originally of Afghan descent. I was born and raised in the GTA , mainly in the scarborough area. I love spending time with people, especially friends and family – although admittedly this career choice has me spending more time with complete strangers whom I have the privilege of helping and assisting with their health. I attended UofT Scarborough campus for my undergrad and then UofT St. George campus for my medical degree and then went on to doing my family medicine training also through UofT at the Markham Stouffville Hospital. I tried my best to stay close to home – maybe I tried too hard?
My current area of specialization is family medicine and I also practice other areas of primary care including mental health and obesity/diabetes medicine. I work mainly out of my clinic at 60 Town Centre Court in Scarborough (www.townclinic.ca). I also enjoy being an entrepreneurship and am currently working with my colleagues on launching www.dexa.me – an imaging health startup company geared for fitness and weight loss folks. I’ve also founded www.student2pro.com which is a professional medical school and student online coaching program.

SECTION 1: Why Medicine?

Diva: What is your inner drive, why did you choose medicine?

Dr. Furmli: There are numerous reasons why I chose to follow medicine but to sum it down to one inner drive, it would be simply because it would be one of many ways to help others and make myself useful to other people.

Diva: Would you like to share your life story or an event in your life that directed your interest to consider going to medical school?  

Dr. Furmli: One day I was eating breakfast at home and my parents told me this great story about how much they wanted to be physicians and how much they wanted me to become a physician here. As I swallowed down my last spoonful of cheerios, I knew I had my calling.

In all seriousness, I had really bad stomach pains one night during our holy month of Ramadhan (Muslims’ fasting month which occurs once a year) when I was just 9 years of age. We had just gotten a new computer that I had just installed Prince of Persia on with floppy disks and my family didn’t believe my symptoms as they thought it was just a ruse to escape evening Taraweeh (hour long) prayers at the mosque. After I started vomiting endlessly, they believed my story and let me stay home but hours later also took me to the hospital where I was incorrectly diagnosed with food poisoning. Another two days and vomits later, my parents took me to Sick Kids Hospital where I was then correctly diagnosed with appendicitis and the doctors there performed surgery and saved my life. Having a near-death experience at that age really brought the idea of being a physician into reality and made me desire to help save others.

Diva: How important do you think is it to know ahead of time if you are really passionate about medicine, or is it that we unknowingly follow the trend or is it some kind of family or social pressure?

Dr. Furmli: I don’t think it matters how soon you realize you want to go into medicine because there is usually always a way and route to get there at pretty much anytime in your life. The real important thing in my view is to have a rock solid conviction for it, a conviction that will enable you to do everything possible to ensure that you can gain acceptance for medical school, withstand the grueling education and training to then become a physician and residency, and then finally, to actually withstand the lifelong and challenging demands of a career with one of the highest burnout rates.

SECTION 2: How did you get into medicine?

Diva: What do you think, deep down asking your inner self, helped and prepared for a career in medicine?

Dr. Furmli: Having a heavy exposure to dealing and interacting with people and their needs. I have worked in customer service since a very young age and that really helped me learn how to easily identify and understand people’s needs. This has helped me immensely as a physician since I really just see myself as a medical customer service agent and helping match my patients’ needs is usually what leaves them leaving with a smile on their face after each encounter (which also then leaves me with a smile as well).

Diva: How important do you think is GPA, MCAT, extracurricular experiences and the application process, and how would you suggest preparing for them?

Dr. Furmli: These are all vital to the process. Would suggest preparing for them as early and rigorously as possible. For specific details or tips – visit my website and download my ebook – www.student2pro.com

Diva: What will be some other factors important for getting into medicine?

Dr. Furmli: Strong CV including research, volunteer and extracurricular experiences as well as awards and employment opportunities. These would also generate strong letters of recommendation.

SECTION 3: What are your next career goals?

Diva: Now as you have completed your residency and have started your own clinic, would you like to share your insights, experiences, and lessons learned?     

Dr. Furmli: Going through such a long and drawn out educational process – I’ve learned numerous insights and lessons – probably more than I even realize. For the sake of brevity perhaps I will mention just three of them here. 1) Only invest yourself into an endeavor (whether it is a school program like medicine, career, business venture, relationship, etc.) if you have researched deeply what the most negative aspects and difficulties of that endeavor will be and that you are willing to accept and do all the things you dislike doing in order to succeed and see that endeavor one day be successful. 2) Always have a strong driving force that you rely on to gain your inner strength and inspiration from – for me it was religion and spirituality. 3) Do your best to always see things from other people’s perspective before you even create your own feelings and opinions about it and use that for doing good – this will make you an excellent customer service person, leader and advocate- and ultimately will make you successful in the healthcare field and in your day to day relationships.

Diva: What other activities are you involved in besides medical school?

Dr. Furmli: Mentorship (MMAC, www.student2pro.com), business and entrepreneurship (www.dexa.me), self-development (physical exercise, learning new clinical skills), religious studies and community service. 

Side Questions:

Diva: What is the most important thing for a living a life of impact where every morning you wake up passionate about your dreams?

Dr. Furmli: The most important thing I believe is having dreams that you are passionate about. If you have dreams that you are most passionate about, then you have something to work towards every day. But having dreams like that in this day and age is very difficult because the world we live in programs us to NOT have dreams and to not think abstractly. From Pre-school until adulthood, the system has designed us to just go from Step A to step B and doesn’t give us the encouragement and room to sit down and ponder about what we dream about doing. Society encourages us to bounce around from one grade to the next, from one institution to the next, from one job to the next. Society designs and encourages people to be “workers” not “dreamers”.

Diva: What is the importance of having dreams and following your dreams, and how would you define success in any area of life?

Dr. Furmli: The importance of having dreams is paramount. Dreams allows us to become Builders and Gamechangers in the world, rather than simply being tools and gears of the existing machine of society that would just continue the status quo. I would define success in any area of life of being just that – being a gamechanger or builder in that area.

Diva: Would you want to share any other insight to aspiring future doctors?

Dr. Furmli: Prepare yourself for a long and arduous but rewarding journey!

Diva: Dr. Furmli we are really grateful to you for taking the time to share your insights with us, which we are very sure will be a great source for guiding our future medical doctors!

IHO Team

January Edition: Featuring Taaha Muhammad – IHO Share Your Story Series

Here we will be bringing you some very amazing and inspiring stories from individuals who are in medicine, health sciences, or healthcare field and who will be sharing with you their adventurous journeys that got them where they are right now.

Each month we will be featuring one individual, for January 2018 please join us Taaha Muhammad a first-year medical student at University of Toronto.

Taaha is going to share his story and some deep insights on what made him ready for this career and what are his future goals. From the little time that I know him, just a little bit over a year, I have found him an incredible human being, a very supportive and kind person who is always out there in the community trying to serve others selflessly. I am sure you will find IHO’s first interview with him very insightful and helpful as he will guide you on your journey of getting into medical school by sharing his story with you all!

Enjoy reading it! 🙂
Q: Would you like to share a little bit about yourself and which medical school are you studying at right now?
A: My name is Taaha Muhammad and I am a first-year medical student at the University of Toronto.
SECTION 1: Why Medicine?
Q: What is your inner drive; why did you choose medicine?
A: I don’t know if I chose medicine as much as medicine sort of, well, chose me! I knew I was interested in the generic value of ‘helping others’ (which is a value that all health professions embrace in some way), but I was in many ways a jack of all trades, enjoying studying so many different disciplines. Medicine aligned very well with that, because it is a career that I hope will allow me to use my skills to be a leader and help people amidst some of the greatest of their sufferings!
Q: Would you like to share your life story or an event in your life that directed you to consider going to medical school?
After volunteering at the hospital and getting to meet the sick, it often hits you how vulnerable and helpless of a position people are in while facing illness. A physician offers their expertise after years and years of rigorous studying and exploration, to give the best possible advice and treatment plan for a patient. They work with other people and offer patients empathy, shoulder their hurt, and comfort them amidst troubling times. It’s a very intimate thing. In fact, one of our U of T admissions essays asked about that: the role of human touch in patient interactions. To that effect, I want to be able to touch the hearts of patients, to really get a sense of what they are going through and be with them through the journey of healing. I want to be that doctor who can comfort his patients and make them feel they are not alone, that even if we don’t have answers, we will never stop to find them. It is such a huge honour to be the vessel through which healing can be brought about in someone. To be graced that honour would be a dream come true.
Q: How important do you think is it to know ahead of time if you are truly passionate about medicine? Also, do you think we unknowingly follow the trend or fall victim to family or social pressure as a reason for pursuing medicine?
A: Medical school is a huge investment (financially, emotionally, educationally, socially, everything-ally, really!) Hence, it’s important to know what you’re signing up for: a long journey of rigor and challenge. It ought to be taken as a marathon, not a sprint. I think being mentally prepared for this, and being able to adapt to and grow through this journey is key. If your heart doesn’t sit with medicine, I imagine it would be quite hard to endure how much medical school (and beyond) can throw at you. The basic psychological principle of “cognitive dissonance” – which comes about when our actions are not in alignment with how we think/feel – is important to remember. You’ll feel fuzzy inside. And that fuzzy feeling can really torment every moment of an experience. Avoiding cognitive dissonance comes when our actions are in harmony with how we feel about a situation. If, for example, parents pressure their child to go to medical school, but the child doesn’t like it, it’s going to be horrendous getting through it! Same goes with any field. Aligning your values with what you do is integral to sustainability and meaningful impact!
SECTION 2: How did you get into medicine?
Q: What do you think – deep down, asking your inner self – helped and prepared you for a career in medicine?
A: I think it was my parents. Not in that they “forced me into this career” but rather the fact that they truly emobided the compassion and values characteristic of what I envision to be a stellar physician. Offering unconditional love and care, going the extra mile, always learning, taking initiative, being there for others – these are all things I’d expect of myself as a practising physician, and these are all things I’ve been blessed to have received by the very people who raised me.
Q: How important do you think GPA, the MCAT, and extracurricular experiences are for the application process, and how would you suggest preparing for them?
A: The importance of these things aligns with the specific admission criteria for any given med school. In other words, for most cases (particularly in Ontario), they are very important. Most schools require a fairly high GPA, a good variety of extracurricular experiences, and a strong MCAT score. I would recommend that you be strategic about which schools you are applying to and optimize your application in terms of where your strengths are. U of T, for example, only requires a baseline 125 in each MCAT criteria, but a very high GPA – however, they cut your lowest 6 grades if you apply after 4th year undergrad or later. You can leverage those benefits to stand as a strong applicant! If you don’t like the MCAT – some schools don’t look at it, so consider those.
I must say, though, that getting into any med school in Canada is hard, and the best way to optimize your chances is to meet (and exceed) the criteria on as many med schools as you can. Hence, a strong combination of a high GPA, MCAT score, and extracurricular profile is (quite obviously) the best way to go. Also, seek the help of mentors who can guide you on specifics for all of these things!
Q: What are some other factors important for getting into medicine?
A: Privilege inevitably plays a role. Having the means of purchasing expensive MCAT courses, interview preparation seminars/courses, etc. gives a competitive edge to those who are able to afford them. Moreover, life circumstances, such as the amount of free time you have to devote to all these things, can really affect how it all turns out. This could be a huge discussion in and of itself, but I guess beyond the circumstantial factors, who you are as a person is a key factor. In interviews, it really comes to show, because the pressure of an interview environment pulls out the reality of who you are (or who you’ve, perhaps, trained to present yourself to be), and that goes a long way in determining how people see and judge you, and ultimately whether or not the admissions committee selects you for medical school!
SECTION 3: What are your career goals moving forward?
Q: Now as you are on the way towards starting your second semester, what are your future goals and which area of specialization in medicine are you planning to choose?
A: Moving forward, I want to keep my eyes open to all the possibilities, as I haven’t fully gotten a sense of most medical specializations. All that said, given my past experiences with counselling, mentorship, etc. and how much I enjoy really getting to know a patient, I am strongly considering psychiatry as a specialization. People who know me seem to agree that it strongly matches who they see me to be, so that’s reassuring!
I understand that psychiatry as a profession is heavily stigmatized – much like mental illness itself, but I think it’s so important for people to seriously give attention to mental health, which is one of the most neglected yet crucial factors in a person’s wellbeing. After hearing insight from the Dean of U of T Medicine (who happens to be a psychiatrist), as well as from the Chair of Psychiatry at U of T Medicine, I was convinced that this profession needs the commitment of people who want to lessen the harms from the greatest of intangible human sufferings: mental illness.
Q: What other activities are you involved in besides medical school?
Beyond medical school, I’m involved with a handful of other extracurricular commitments. I serve as a Registration co-Manager for MIST Toronto, which is an annual interscholastic tournament for high school students across the GTA. I am also a counsellor and Education Coordinator for Naseeha, which is North America’s largest Muslim Youth Helpline. From time to time, I give presentations at schools on topics such as mental health, self-esteem, etc. I am also part of the Psychiatry Interest Group at U of T, where I help organize events for medical students interested in learning more about psychiatry. I am also a member of MAX Mentors – a program that aims to connect budding professionals with current mentors in their fields of interest! Beyond my extracurricular involvements, I’m also an older brother of 3 siblings (and younger brother of 1); family is a very big priority in my life.
SECTION 4: Side Question
Q: What is the most important thing for living a life of impact where every morning you wake up passionate about your dreams?
A: I remember in grade 10 we did a project in which we had to list out our greatest values, and that exercise has resonated with me ever since. I realize that values allow us to live a life of meaning, and I think doing so allows us to devote the greatest of our energies toward all the goals we aim to pursue. Moreover, living a life backed by values gives us the backbone needed to endure any challenge and remain grounded. As Victor Frankl, in his book Man’s Search for Meaning, beautifully quotes Nietzsche, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.” Meaning is key to living a life of impact.
Q: Would you want to share any other insight to aspiring future doctors?
Put your heart into medicine. Give your patients so much love they can’t find a way to appreciate it enough. You are entering a profession where you will not just “make a person’s day,” but often, “make a person’s life” by making critical decisions that will resonate with them for eternity. I can’t articulate how great of an honour it is to be pursuing this profession, and how huge a responsibility it is for us to approach it with heart, compassion, in order to be the best doctors we can possibly be. The world is in need of kind souls who give of themselves for the betterment of others. I see medicine as a profession that so beautifully fits the mold of altruism.
I am really grateful Taaha for taking the time to share your insights with us which I am sure will be the source of guiding our future medical doctors! And thank you all for reading through it and if you have any questions for Taaha, you can contact us or follow this post on our Facebook page and ask your question there.
Taaha LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/taaha-muhammad-a061a21b/
Taaha Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/taaha.muhammad
  Diva Turial