Donor gives back to U of A to say thanks

Construction-company owner establishes global professorship in ophthalmology with $500,000 pledge

Keri Sweetman - 5 December 2022

Shiraz Jiwani was a newcomer to Canada and a new business owner when he landed his first-ever construction job in 1985, renovating student housing for the University of Alberta.

That $260,000 contract “was a great job, the people were very honest, very helpful, and that gave me a really solid foundation,” says Jiwani, who owns AMAN Builders in Sherwood Park. He’s never forgotten how the U of A took a chance on him in 1985 and again in 1990, when his company renovated the historic Corbett Hall, a job worth just under $10 million.

This fall, Jiwani’s charitable organization, the Shiraz H. Jiwani Charitable Foundation, pledged $500,000 to the U of A to establish a global professorship in ophthalmology. The goal is to enhance the university’s international partnerships in translational vision research and to promote capacity-building in the developing world, where vision care is often decades behind Canada’s.

Carlos Solarte, an associate professor and residency program director in the Department of Ophthalmology & Visual Sciences, has been named to the professorship, which will allow him to continue a decades-long passion for global health and international ophthalmology. The $500,000 pledge is over a 10-year period.

Solarte was born in Colombia and did most of his education there, including his medical degree and ophthalmology training, followed by a fellowship in pediatric ophthalmology at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto and a master’s in public health at U of A. He has been at the U of A since 2012.

Even before he arrived in Canada, Solarte was volunteering regularly for Orbis, an international non-profit that works worldwide to fight avoidable blindness and improve vision care. Solarte has been to 57 countries since 2001 on volunteer missions with Orbis and the American Association for Pediatric Opthalmology and Strabismus.

His focus is on building capacity in the countries he visits. In Kampala, Uganda, for example, he says there were 26 ophthalmologists for 46 million people when he visited the country with Orbis in 2004. The solution was to help them create a strong training program that followed international standards over the years that followed his first visit. Today, he says the number of properly trained ophthalmologists in the country has doubled

For all developing countries struggling to offer proper vision care, he says “it’s more important to help them develop their own strengths and empower them to solve their own problems rather than us going in …. and applying a Band-Aid to the problem and then leaving. We are not going to make sustainable change just by going for one week.”

The AMAN Builders Inc. Global Professorship will start with two major projects.

The first is a partnership with the Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, allowing Solarte to support medical residents there in training by supporting the implementation of  competency-based medical education. Ophthalmology residents from the U of A and the Aga Khan University will also use one another’s resources and carry out research on education and capacity-building.

The second project will be a similar partnership with the ophthalmology department at the University for Development Studies in Tamale, Ghana.

The Aga Khan University project in Karachi came about because the chair of their Department of Ophthalmology and Visual Sciences is Karim Damji, a former chair of the U of A’s ophthalmology department who moved to Pakistan about a year ago.

Even though he is no longer at U of A, Damji was instrumental in establishing the global professorship. He and Jiwani are friends and both are members of the Ismaili Muslim faith, whose spiritual leader, the Aga Khan, puts great emphasis on sharing and caring for others. Damji knew of his friend’s many philanthropic contributions and he approached him to see if he’d be interested in helping the U of A’s ophthalmology department continue its international work.

Jiwani was easily convinced. AMAN Builders’ core purpose is to “build thriving communities locally and globally,” he says. He and his wife grew up in a developing nation, Tanzania, and came to Canada in 1975 for better lives for themselves and their children, who were all born in Canada. He understands the importance of education and feels an obligation to those living in underprivileged areas of the world. “Whatever difference we can make, we are trying to do that.”

An added bonus is that one of Jiwani’s daughters is an optometrist in Toronto and she was thrilled that her dad had invested in global vision care.

Jiwani’s charitable foundation has donated to more than 70 charities over the years, but the U of A remains a favoured partner. Jiwani previously donated $50,000 toward the construction of the Diwan Pavilion at the Aga Khan Garden at the University of Alberta Botanic Garden in Devon.

“I’ve got two partners,” says Jiwani. “One is the University of Alberta and the other is the Aga Khan Foundation. Both these organizations have helped me in my life. I don’t forget the people who help me.”