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#WomenWhoWill - Activist Sarah Jameel

March 9, 2017

In honor of Women's History Month, we've launched #WomenWhoWill, an online campaign honoring women we know will make history from around the world. 

 

First, meet Sarah Jameel. She's a Dental Student and Quercus Active Citizenship Scholar at University College Cork, but that's not all. Sarah started her activism at age 11 in her home of Sri Lanka in the aftermath of the Asian Tsunami, fundraising for medicine/medical equipment. Sarah's shaken up our world in incredible ways since: from being a Global Teen Leader at We Are Family Foundation to interning at World Health Organization to serving as a Global Changemaker for the British Council and so much more. 

 

 What are you up to right now?

I’m in third year of Dental School, which means I have just started to treat

patients. Besides learning to recreate smiles at school, I run Food Beyond

Borders, an online storytelling campaign that connects people and

places through food culture and conversation. And between that and clinics, my

downtime is spent writing for Dear Fellow Human which is a writing space I founded and curate in order to have important conversations with the world on global and social issues I deem pertinent.

 

2. What’s a struggle you’ve overcome? What did you learn from it?

When you’re a round peg in a square hole, the struggle of being an outlier is very

real. Growing up in Sri Lanka where I spent most of my primary and secondary

education, I was exposed to the triad of professions – Medicine, Law and

Engineering. Any child growing up there would agree with me that the societal

pressure to conform to one of these 3 pinnacle professions is undeniably

obvious. But the caveat is that you have to pick one from an early age and God

forbid if you have skills or interest that intersect them in any way then you’re a

conundrum to those around you. I grew up as that conundrum – the science

student in the classroom and the arts/politically engaged lover of the humanities

outside the classroom.

Then going onto pursuing a career in Dentistry, the ubiquitous comment I would

get from society in general would be that I was going to follow my father’s

footsteps and take over his practice. Of course, by default I was following his

footsteps in taking up the same profession. But that didn’t mean that I was going

to be him in every sense and form. The way I viewed Dentistry differed from him.

I spent my 18 th birthday with him, helping out at a Dental Fluorosis Outreach

Project in a rural part of Sri Lanka.

 

Here I met this young girl who looked different

from the rest of the children I had spoken to. Her face was slightly disfigured from

what seemed to be a trauma injury. The nurses later told me that she was a

gunshot victim whose family had been in the crossfire of a recent attack in Sri

Lanka’s three decade-long civil war. Tragedy has struck twice, unfortunately for

this girl; her family had been relocated to a town, which had a dental health-

related time bomb. The effect of excess fluoride levels in the ground water left

discoloration on the permanent teeth of children her age and led them to become

socially stigmatized and afraid to smile. She was suffering from Post-Traumatic

Stress Disorder (PTSD), and was not amenable to any type of treatment regimen

thus far. I sat with her, held her hand, and reassured her that when the treatment

was done, she would look back in the mirror and feel better. She came out of the

treatment room, smiling at me and said “nandri” – or thank you in Tamil, and it

was in her moment of glee that I realized the impact a Dentist had on a populace,

and I was awed not merely by the challenge of saving a life but more by being

able to change one. Six months later, at the World Economic Forum as one of

the 6 British Council Global Changemakers, representing the voice of youth

globally, I found myself reliving moments of what could have been this girl’s life

before my encounter with her. At the United Nations Refugee Agency’s Refugee

Run, together with world leaders and businessmen, I was made to experience

simulated landmine attacks, solitary confinement and rape, and negotiate

between meager food rations and a doctor’s visit. So although I had the option of

plunging directly into Dentistry after high school, I decided to take the road less

travelled and answer the fundamental questions that had come out of my

encounter with that young girl. How do healthcare professionals approach

patients in conflict-ridden situations? How is humanitarian relief provided to

communities amidst civil wars? What are the bargaining strategies

and security dilemmas associated with providing reliable dental care to these

civilians? What role do International Organizations play in creating and

implementing health strategies globally? In order to pursue these answers I

majored in Biology and minored in International Relations. I learned that PCR

meant both Polymerase Chain Reaction as well as Post Conflict Reconstruction.

As a firm believer in simplifying the complicated, I learned that deciphering and

solving interconnected challenges the world faces today cannot be done until

fields merge and inspire each other. 

 

But until very recently, people seemed to know what’s best for me and often tried

to feed me the jargon of following a path in Law or International Relations. But it

wasn’t until I was completing my undergraduate degree at McGill University in

Biomedical Sciences and International Relations did I realize myself that you

didn’t have to fit into the boxes and keyholes that are created by society. Being

multidisciplinary is not a weakness that I needed to shy away from. It was what

made me – me. They say kids learn from their surroundings from a very young

age, and I grew up in a home where my mum practiced Law and my dad

practiced Dentistry. So if anything, this nature and nurture could account for my

merged interests. I’ve always wanted to be the type of Dentist that has an insight

that draws on clinical dentistry and social theory, one who is able to link

molecular epidemiology to history, and ethnography to political economy.

As a result, the summer before I started Dental School, I had to stand my ground

about taking up interning with the World Health Organization (WHO) in Geneva

because my dad was not so up for it. I had to explain to him how both Dentistry

and Global Health are two integral parts of me where I can’t lose either in order to

do well in either. I think he later understood where I was coming from that I would

only be happy if I could practice Dentistry clinically, be involved in research and

actively engage in dental outreach. And now being in the midst of learning to

master clinical practice to become a good clinician, something I currently enjoy

every day, what I wrote in my Dental School essay still stands. I said,

“To me, Humanitarianism lies at the core of Dentistry. This is because every act

of kindness that touches another human being inevitably makes them smile, and

spreading smiles or “Sina Bo Weva”, as the name of Unilever’s oral health

campaign in Sri Lanka translates to – is a gift that a dentist specializes in giving.

So my life goal is to create a MSF (Doctors Without Borders) for Dentists. As look

ahead into my future, Sina Bo Weva is not merely the title of an advertising

campaign, but the mission statement in my own personal effort to create a world

with a healthy smile by providing dental care to regions of the globe that need it

the most. But in the present, learning to achieve clinical excellence is what I am

striving for.

Therefore, on as to how I overcome and learn from struggles, I have to thank my

parents for intricately laying out the groundwork for resilience through their love,

support and continued guidance. Growing up, when they realized I had no

interest for my Barbie dolls, they went ahead and got me Lego and Chess and a

First Aid kit so I could practice putting Band-Aids on them and write fake

prescriptions for them – because that’s what made me happy. They never

restricted me with gender stereotypes whether it was in sport or intellect. Looking

back, my dad especially played this game against the world so well by being a

feminist in his own way. He only focused and made me focus on my intelligence

and any talents I may have had, because he very well knew what the world would

focus on the superficial (on looks and appearance – if any). To date, he cares

more about what I learn in class than what I wear to a party. Lastly, my parents

always treated my brother and me alike – so the discrimination never started at

home. And as a result, these are the ideals I took with me to the world when I left

home. So with the people I call life bras (my real life support system) made up of

my parents, brother and close friends/mentors/ nonbiological family any struggle

can be slayed because they’ve seen me at my weakest and loved me anyway.

 

3. With the current political climate, what’s your advice to keep taking

action? How are you taking action?

I write. There’s some free verse I wrote that might put the way I view the status

quo and what we can and should do into perspective.

“Ordinary people”

What is easy is to stand up

When the injustice is against you

What is hard is to stay standing

When the injustice isn't about you

But it takes ordinary people

And extraordinary circumstances

To think better

To do better

To be better

Ordinary people

Sarah Jameel

 

What is easy is to turn a blind eye

When the shots weren't fired at your family (yet)

What is hard is to feel traumatized

When the drama doesn't affect your family (yet)

But it takes ordinary people

And extraordinary circumstances

To think bigger

To act bigger

To be bigger

Ordinary people

 

What is easy is to not stop and wonder

How all the -isms and -phobias aren't deal breakers

How they aren't humane reflexes for all

But,

How we can strive to make them knee jerks

Because it takes ordinary people

And extraordinary circumstances

To think kinder

To act kinder

To be kinder

Ordinary people

 

Neutrality serves no purpose in moral crises

And it takes ordinary people

And extraordinary circumstances

To spread humanity like Nutella

To ensure it covers the entire toast

And leaves no room for disarray in the one and only tribe

The human tribe

Made of ordinary people

And extraordinary circumstances

That is really all it takes

 

4. What’s your self-mantra?

In a world where you can be anything, be kind.

 

5. What does an average day look like to you?

Wake up around 6.30/7am and have my coffee, manuka honey and breakfast.

Go to hospital for labs/clinics or class from 9-5 and leave hospital a bit earlier on

good days. Come back home; touch base with my loved ones. Look over my

Sarah Jameel

schoolwork and extracurricular activities. Write. Swim. Remember to brush my

teeth and floss at night (hint) and try to get 7-8 hours of sleep a night (I am a big

fan of Arianna Huffington and the importance of sleep because I have learned the

hard way about the real physical detrimental effects of not listening to your body

and its circadian rhythm).

6. It’s Women’s History Month - who is a woman from history/from your

own life that has shaped who you are today?

Hermione Granger – and by default J.K. Rowling for creating such an imperfect

yet human(e) character. Hermione taught me that you could be a nerd and still

not be boring – if anything more interesting. Hermione is kind and compassionate

and believes that all creatures should be treated with dignity and respect. She

goes onto to create the Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (S.P.E.W)

after she witnesses a house elf being poorly treated, in order to give house elves

equal rights. She shows her vulnerability and flaunts it as an asset as opposed to

a weakness. She always choses the high road with bullies by saying “Ignore it”

as opposing to feeding the trolls. And this element of maturity is one of the most

valuable lessons she’s taught me – when they go low, you go high. She doesn’t

compromise principle or loyalty for what is easy. And I think this quality is

something I look for in my friends and loved ones. Additionally, I have also

always related to her and how she can be labeled as snobby – when in reality it’s

more like being shy or reserved until I get to know people. And after that you may

regret how crazy and silly I can get when you’re part of my inner circle. But yes

there are many layers you have to peel off to get to that level of candidness. And

the woman that Hermione grew up to be in ‘The Cursed Child’ is everything I

hope to be as a human. So all in all she’s my favourite woman and feminist in the

history of the wizarding world.

Other than that I am a great fan of Ellen and her kindness and Princess Diana

and her humanitarianism. And it goes without saying – my mum, for teaching me

to “lean in” for as long as I could remember. I remember her saying that “Often

you need to work twice as hard as a woman to be half as recognized for your

work.” And I wish she were lying. So as for genetic role models, she makes a

very strong and beautiful one.

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