Public health grad inspired by inner-city youth

    School graduate Ali Assi's public health journey has taken him from Lebanon to inner-city Edmonton.

    By Donna Richardson on June 9, 2015

    When we’re asked who or what has influenced our life choices, it’s not unusual to think of people who have inspired us in our journey. But, once in a while, our greatest inspiration comes from the most unexpected places.

    This is the case for Ali Assi, a member of the School of Public Health graduating class of Spring 2015.

    Assi says that there have been a few “defining moments” along the way which led him from his homeland of Lebanon to study public health at the University of Alberta.

    First, there was the World Red Cross Day he attended at the age of 17, where youth volunteers spoke about the programs in which they were involved, such as HIV / AIDS education and traffic safety programs.

    “In a war torn country such as Lebanon,” explains Assi, “the work of the Red Cross is so important for the survival of the citizens.”

    His exposure to the Red Cross programs piqued his interest in public health, and Assi began volunteering with the humanitarian group. The experience influenced Assi’s decision to study medicine—another opportunity to develop skills where he could help people.

    As a student at the Ryazan State Medical University in Russia, Assi was learning the skills needed to diagnose and treat patients who were affected by illness and disease. But, throughout his learning, he found himself asking “why.”

    In his last term, Assi was formally introduced to public health through his coursework. “I began to understand more about why people experience preventable chronic diseases and other illnesses,” he explains.

    “When in Lebanon, I missed a crucial point about the impact that poverty, displacement and lack of education can have on a community. I did not understand that these factors are the cause, rather than the outcome, of compromised health," says Assi. “After studying medicine in Russia, I wanted to understand the underlying causes of illness.”

    Could something be done to prevent the illness in the first place, he wondered?

    “I realized that additional training in public health, coupled with my medical degree, would allow me to help more people because I could be working with communities and populations.”

    According to Assi, Canada is a pioneer in public health. So, it seemed logical to look for a graduate program there to develop his skills. In 2013, he was accepted into the master of public health program in global health.

    It was while working on his capstone project with iHuman Youth Society that Assi met people who changed his personal outlook and helped him confirm his passion for public health.

    iHuman Youth Society is a non-profit organization that engages Edmonton’s youth who face high-risk lifestyles. Their goal is to reintegrate youth into the community by developing skills, self-esteem and a sense of worth. Strategies include mentorship, crisis intervention and targeted programming, including Uncensored, a drama-based project.

    Uncensored allows youth to tell their stories through drama,” says Assi. “The result is that they teach the audience about their situation and we get to see and feel their experiences.”

    The project was developed to teach service providers about the challenges faced by marginalized youth. iHuman’s executive director, Catherine Broomfield, engaged Assi to evaluate the program.

    Assi planned to conduct interviews as part of the project evaluation. He knew that, if people were going to share their personal stories with him, he’d need to get to know them and develop trusting relationships. “Before I started any interviews, I volunteered for three months in a sharing circle hosted by iHuman.”

    The result was nothing short of inspiring.

    “They told me how they were able to change, in spite of their circumstances,” explains Assi. “Youth who participated in Uncensored became more confident and began making positive life choices, such as graduating from college, making documentaries and influencing peers through motivational speaking.”

    For Assi, this was a reminder that health is more than the absence of illness. It includes, among other things, mental and emotional well-being. “These youth were able to make positive change in their lives, even though they faced great adversity,” he says.

    Witnessing these stories of life change among Edmonton’s youth caused Assi to see that highly developed countries, such as Canada, share many of the same problems as developing nations. The experience also confirmed Assi’s desire to pursue a career in public health.

    “I know that I want to practice global public health,” he says. “For me, it is a life-long calling.”