Drs. Asile, BSc’03, DDS’08, and Asraa El-Darahali, DDS’13
When Dalhousie School of Dentistry alumni Asile and Asraa El-Darahali saw the news reports about the Syrian refugee crisis last year, it struck a chord with them, just as it did for many Canadians. But for these sisters, the reasons were dramatically different.
In 1992, Asile and Asraa – then just children – fled Kuwait with their family in the wake of the Gulf War. They never forgot how Canadians welcomed them to their new home, and looked for opportunities to spread that spirit of generosity to the world. Seeing the current crisis unfold, Asile and Asraa decided to provide volunteer dental services at a refugee camp in Jordan near the Syrian border.
“We wanted refuges to know that Canada had not forgotten about them, and that Canadians cared,” says Asraa. “The people we met were surprised we left our work and our families to come and help them. But the sacrifices they made to get there far outstripped ours. The resilience they had, that’s a lifelong lesson I will never forget.”
Two transformative forces
Those who know Asile and Asraa – recipients of the 2015 Dalhousie Alumni Association Christopher J. Coulter Award – could say the same of these young women. Not yet forty, their accomplishments, professional successes and community commitments could fill several lifetimes, and have impressed colleagues and former classmates alike.
“Asraa has demonstrated her passion for helping others over the years, but 2015 was particularly profound,” says Ahmad Hussein, who studied at the School of Dentistry with Asraa. “In addition to rallying the dental community to provide support for Syrian refugees, she fed hundreds of families that were in need and kept homeless people warm during winter. Simply put, she sees problems, wants to fix them and draws large crowds to support her in those efforts. ”
Colette Vallee says the same of Asile. The former Faculty of Dentistry instructor says Asile quickly distinguished herself as someone with considerable energy and enthusiasm for overcoming obstacles both in her life and in the community.
“She’s been my colleague in the same Bedford dental practice for five years. She is an extremely hard working, diligent and caring clinician, and is passionate and dedicated to helping others, especially those less fortunate. I believe those qualities are not only worth celebrating, they’re ones we all could follow.”
Tireless community spirit
Through their generosity, Asile and Asraa have touched the lives of many, both throughout the Greater Halifax Municipality and overseas. Asile, for example, is a mentor at her family’s Mosque, provides volunteer dental services at the North End Community Health Centre, and has raised funds for everyone from Beacon House to Syrian refugees. In 2015, she and Asraa launched the Spirit of Ramadan, a food and funding drive benefitting several charities, and Coats for Humanity, an effort that saw 1,100 new and used coats donated to children and adults in the community.
“Our mom is our inspiration,” explains Asile. “She’s the one who always says we have a lot to be thankful for, so why not give back? And that’s why, ever since I was able to, I have volunteered in every way I could.”
Inspiring others to give back
Asraa has found considerable motivation in the joy she experiences in mobilizing the community to make a difference.
“I think most people really want to give back, but they don’t always know how, or have a way to do that. So when you can give people a chance to get involved, you get to see true community spirit, and how much everyone really cares. That’s an amazing experience.”
Asile and Asraa are delighted to be recognized by fellow Dalhousie alumni, but also hope that, in receiving the DAA award, they might serve as an inspiration to them to follow their dreams and help others in the community.
“Our philosophy has always been the more you give to others, and the more you can inspire them, the more you make someone happy,” says Asile. “That’s what makes us happy. You don’t have to change the world for everybody, but if you can change it for one person, that’s what matters.”
Sara Austin, BA’98
What do you do when you’ve led the development of a United Nations law that gives children around the world access to international justice when their rights are denied or violated? If you’re Sara L. Austin (BA’98), you find new ways to make a difference in the lives of young people.
The former director of the president’s office for World Vision in Toronto is currently doing that as a lecturer in the department of Child and Youth Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary.
“We moved here earlier this year, and this was an opportunity for me to continue my passion for empowering children and youth,” says the 2015 Dalhousie Alumni Association Christopher J. Coulter Award recipient.
“Many young Canadians are unaware that they have rights. Through this program, we’re equipping early childhood educators and child and youth care counsellors with an understanding of those rights and how to apply that knowledge in their work so they can raise awareness. I’m excited to support this new generation of role models.”
Austin also is involved in the University’s Centre for Child Well-Being, an initiative dedicated to investigating, promoting and enhancing the factors that determine the happiness, security and health of children. And she’s building momentum to launch a nationwide movement to address issues such as inequality and poverty for kids across Canada.
“We have a national poverty epidemic with one in six children living in poverty. That rises to one in four among Aboriginal children and one in three in some of our urban areas. By engaging government, non-profits and the private sector in solutions to this situation, I believe we can make Canada the best nation on earth for kids to grow up.”
That determination, first fostered by Austin’s parents, came into full bloom at Dalhousie where she studied International Development and Women’s Studies.
“The University provided the academic training and practical life experience through the Cuban semester program to start me on this path,” says Austin.
“That the Dalhousie community continues to encourage and celebrate the work that I’ve done is a huge honour for me. An award like this gives me the energy to keep doing what I’m doing.”
As for long-term plans, Austin is open to any opportunities that allow her to put her theories and practices for protecting and empowering children to good use. And that includes her five-year-old son.
“I want to support and encourage him to achieve his potential, whatever that might look like. But I also want to help kids across the country and around the world to experience a better life.”
Christy Sutherland, MD’08
Dr. Christy Sutherland (MD’08) understands that addiction is a chronic disease, not a choice. As an addiction medicine physician in Vancouver, her life’s focus is to help some of society’s most marginalized individuals.
“Being an addiction doctor often feels like an uphill battle,” says Dr. Sutherland. “Cardiologists don’t have to argue that a heart attack is an illness. We have imaging studies that show brain changes that happen because of addiction. There are DNA transcription changes that happen. But there’s still this leftover narrative from long ago that addiction is a choice.”
For thousands of Canadians, there is no choice. There’s only the addiction that takes over their lives, making it impossible to hold down a job, keep a roof over their heads or stay out of jail. But so long as there are people like Dr. Sutherland focused on treating addiction, there is hope. The Dalhousie Medical School and UBC graduate has been making a difference as a family doctor and addiction medicine physician with the Portland Hotel Society in Vancouver. This non-profit is unique in Canada for providing social housing – known as hotels – and support for people living with addiction and related disorders. Experience has taught her that a place to live and access to health care are vital in helping addicts on the journey toward abstinence, not only giving them a greater sense of dignity and a better quality of life, but also helping to make communities safer.
“Police have told us that crime is down in the neighbourhood,” says Dr. Sutherland, who has served as executive director of the Society’s Bosman Hotel Community and is now co-medical director of the Society. “We did a study looking at court dates and the number dropped from an average of 12 a year [before people moved in] to two once people moved in here. Hospital visits and admissions went down. We’ve also seen people develop relationships and get involved with hobbies. These are victories worth celebrating.”
As for future plans, Dr. Sutherland is looking to expand clinical services in all of the housing operated by society. But would she transition into politics to advocate for her patients?
“Maybe, someday. I’ve discovered I really love clinical work, so I know I’m going to be a clinician my whole life long, but we’ll see what happens.”
Dr. Jordon Sheriko, MD’11
The idea for Camp Triumph was born of Dr. Jordon Sheriko’s (MD’11) own childhood experiences. His father, Tom, was diagnosed with brain cancer when Jordan was just four years old and battled the disease for more than 18 years.
“Our lives revolved around his care, treatment and appointments. We wanted to give kids who are going through similar things an opportunity to get a break from the demands of their everyday life, and be exposed to new experiences, to build self-esteem and confidence with others who can truly relate to their situation.” says Dr. Sheriko.
The summer camp is dedicated exclusively to children who have a family member with a chronic illness–not just cancer. And it’s the only camp of its kind in North America.
Dr. Sheriko spends most of his spare time running the camp, which can be more like a full-time job than an extracurricular activity. “We look after everything, from the day-today activities to all the behind the scene jobs like accounting, paperwork and fundraising,” says Dr. Sheriko, who launched the project with his mother Kathi in 2005. “Once it got rolling, it was too big to stop. It got to the point where it was a lot to handle, but we had to keep going because people were relying on us.”
Fundraising is integral to the success of the camp. “The financial impact that a chronic illness has on families is often overlooked, so that’s why we offer the camp free of charge,” he says. “The camp is entirely staffed by volunteers and we raise money to cover the hard costs. So, to a large extent, it’s fundraising that dictates how many weeks we can operate each summer.”
What started as a one-week camp at a temporary location in rented army tents has become a full-blown summer camping extravaganza. Now in its ninth year of operation, the camp has a permanent location in a corner of the Cabot Beach Provincial Park in PEI with beautiful new facilities. It operates five weeks a year, with approximately 70 campers each week.
“Chronic illness affects the entire family,” says Dr. Sheriko. “Everyday life is centered on the person who is ill and children often have to take on extra responsibilities. The focal point of our camp is to give these kids an experience that is all about them.”
Erin O’Toole, LLB’03
Erin O’Toole, corporate lawyer with Heenan Blaikie in Toronto, busy family man and founder and director of the True Patriot Love Foundation gives this advice to recent graduates: “Don’t wait until you feel you’ve established your career 10 years before you start getting involved in causes and things you enjoy. Get rolling right away.”
He speaks from experience. In 2009, in the midst of building an award-winning career and raising a young family, Erin helped to establish the True Patriot Love Foundation – an organization that supports and honours members of the Canadian military and their families. Thanks to Erin’s efforts, the Foundation has raised more than $10 million to date.
His commitment to community service has recently taken on another dimension. In August of 2012, he was acclaimed as the Conservative Party candidate for upcoming federal by-election in Durham, Ontario.
Dr. Carolyn Watts, BSc’94, MD’98
With her winning combination of skill, determination, compassion and courage, Carolyn Watts has devoted much of her life to improving the lives of others. During her Med School days at Dal (where she also studied viola), both her fellow students and instructors held Carolyn in high esteem. After her studies, Carolyn served a population of over 100,000 in a remote, Afghan village for almost five years caring for obstetrical patients and newborns. Today, Carolyn is furthering her education and challenging others to look beyond the simple tasks of the day as she writes on work-life balance and other complex topics. Watch the 2011 Alumni Awards video on YouTube.
Benjie Nycum, BEDS’95, MARFP’97
Benjie Nycum is designing a better community – both physically and socially – as CEO of William Nycum & Associates Limited, a 25-person architecture and planning firm, and as a tireless volunteer. For over a decade, he has been a leader in international and national lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth and human rights. Mr. Nycum gives his time to numerous organizations, and he encourages others to use their talent, time and resources to get involved. He is deeply involved with Dalhousie’s Faculty of Architecture and Planning – from the scholarship his firm offers students, to his role as instructor and guest critic. Through his many personal and professional contributions, Mr. Nycum is helping to build a future full of promise.
Rose Cousins, BScK’97
When East Coast Music Award-winning singer/songwriter, Rose Cousins, came to Dalhousie, she had ambitions of a career in kinesiology. In the process, she rediscovered her love of music. Rose gave her first performance the same year she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology and has since taken the stage with many international artists.
While at Dalhousie, Rose drew on her strengths as a mentor and volunteered much of her time to student government, sport team psychology, and residence life. This commitment to community continued when she joined with musical colleagues to record a collection of Christmas songs and perform a sold-out concert that benefited the Maritime’s food banks.
Rose continues to impress people with her talent . . . she was recently named one of Chatelaine magazine’s “80 Amazing Canadian Women to Watch.”
Christopher Crowell, LLB/MBA’02
Though born and raised in Dartmouth, Chris Crowell has called Toronto home for the last six years. He is committed to giving back to the community and serves as a volunteer and leader with a number of different community organizations, including Business for the Arts – Arts Scene and Shakespeare in Action.
Chris’ real passion, however, lies with East Coast Connected, an organization he founded in 2007.
ECC is a volunteer networking organization that promotes the exchange of ideas, capital, knowledge and creativity between Atlantic Canada and Toronto.
As president of ECC, Chris has formed strategic relationships with all four provincial governments in Atlantic Canada and last May, he helped organize the organization’s first Atlantic Business Summit in Toronto.
Sean Foreman LLB’98
Sean Foreman graduated from Dalhousie in 1998 with a specialization in environmental law and a strong interest in human rights and constitutional law. His commitment to the community, the law profession and Dalhousie began during his time as a student when he was first introduced to the Law School’s Weldon Tradition of public service.
Sean is a volunteer and director to a number of charitable, social and legal organizations, including the Canadian Bar Association, the Nova Scotia Barristers’ Society, Clean Nova Scotia and the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Youth Project. Some of Sean’s most notable work with the Youth Project supported the development of the Safe Home, Safe Classrooms and Safe Streets programs. A partner with Halifax law firm Wickwire Holm, Sean has also provided pro-bono legal services to the gay and lesbian community.
In 2004, his services culminated in the constitutional challenges that legalized same-sex marriage in both Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and Labrador. Sean remains involved with the Law School as a part-time faculty member, director of the Dalhousie Law Alumni Association and coach of Dalhousie’s Laskin Moot team.
Dr. Patricia Benoit Chafe, BSc’88, BScHC’89, BEd’92, PhD’99
While working for the Department National Defense, she accepted a position with Skate Canada. It was in this capacity Patricia helped analyze the issues and factors that were negatively affecting performance judging, the grading system of which had existed with few changes since 1896.
Known as the “the Brains behind the new system,” Patricia was responsible for the development and implementation of a new judging system for Figure Skating at all levels. During this arduous process, a colleague of Patricia’s describers her this way: “Dr. Benoit’s commitment to this project both internationally and domestically has provided today’s athletes, and the athletes of the future, with the knowledge that they will be judged fairly. Creating a level playing field for athletes and coaches is something of the utmost importance to her.”
Today, Patricia is President of Jump Beyond Inc., a strategic analysis firm focusing on Canada’s sport industry, and is teaching part-time at Carleton University.
Skate Canada congratulated Dr. Chafe on winning this award.