Dal students support doctors offering urgent care to those in need around the world

- January 26, 2024

Ava Maleki (left), founder of the Dalhousie chapter of Friends of Doctors Without Border, and group events coordinator Angela Xu at this week's DSU Society and Volunteer Expo. (Provided photos)
Ava Maleki (left), founder of the Dalhousie chapter of Friends of Doctors Without Border, and group events coordinator Angela Xu at this week's DSU Society and Volunteer Expo. (Provided photos)

Untangling an emergency medical situation can be tricky in the best of conditions. Imagine doing so in a war zone or a community pummeled by disease or struggling with resource shortages.

Dal student Ava Maleki seized an opportunity last year to help health professionals navigating such troubling scenarios by setting up a student group to raise awareness and funds for Doctors Without Borders, a global non-profit that taps doctors around the world to provide medical humanitarian aid.

"Some of the doctors, nurses and other health professionals are working in war zones and sometimes their clinics are attacked or bombed," says Ava, a third-year medical sciences student who spearheaded the creation of Dalhousie Friends of Doctors Without Borders last January. 

Ava first learned about Doctors Without Borders — also known as Medecience San Frontiers, or MSF, after its French origins — when her mother shared that some colleagues had been on missions abroad with the non-profit.  

She felt eager to mobilize students at Dal to support the organization's work and discovered a network of affiliated student societies, called Friends of MSF, across the country that do just that. Dal didn't have a chapter at the time, so she created one.

A year after launch, the Dal-based group now boasts 360 general members on its mailing list and about 90 volunteers committed to putting in at least a few hours of work to help organize activities. The group added 50 new members this week alone during the 2024 DSU Clubs and Societies Expo.

Dalhousie Friends of MSF members Sophia Giammario, left, and Alexia Bulger run a bake sale on campus. 

Bringing first-hand perspectives to campus 

Most of the work the group does revolves around fundraising. It's raised more than $1,800 so far for MSF Canada this academic year, with a busy term ahead to top it up.

Dalhousie Friends of MSF also hosts events on campus to raise awareness about the organization's work around the world, which includes providing emergency medical aid, medical supplies to communities in need, setting up mobile health clinics and centres, offering psychological assistance, and more.

The group hosted an event last year featuring two Dal medicine alumni who've worked for MSF Canada for decades, including Dr. Luella Smith and Dr. Joni Guptill — who once served as its president. Both spoke about their experiences on missions around the world in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, and in zones of conflict with internally displaced people, disasters (typhoons and earthquakes), epidemics (cholera, measles, and Ebola) and malnutrition.

“It was quite empowering to see the types of missions both of those physicians had been on and their impact on people’s lives," says Ava, who hopes to attend medical school and could see herself travelling overseas with MSF someday.

"They served in dangerous situations, and it was insightful to hear about their courage and dedication to helping others." 

L-R: Dr. Joni Guptill, Ava Maleki, and Dr. Luella Smith.

Contributing to a meaningful cause

Sophia Giammario, a third-year medical sciences student who serves as vice-president of the Dal chapter, says she originally became involved with MSF through door-to-door canvassing.

“I felt compelled to join the society with the goal of spreading awareness and continuing to fundraise,” she says.

Other student volunteers share this impulse to spread the message and support the non-profit’s work in trouble spots abroad.

“I am grateful that I can support the vital humanitarian aid that they provide in my role with Dal Friends of MSF,” says fellow third-year medical sciences student Alexia Bulger, the group’s secretary.

Maggie Byrne, a third-year health promotion student and publications chair of Dalhousie Friends of MSF, says she has built excellent relationships with other like-minded students through the group.

“Being part of the community on campus at Dal is really engaging, and it is enriching to work with other students to contribute to something more meaningful,” she says.

Ava says planning is now underway for several events this year, including an MSF Speaker Event in March. Follow the group on Instagram for the latest updates: @dal.fomsf


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