A discussion with Zarlasht Jamal by Aisha Saleem:

Today I am launching my first monthly blog for “A Student’s Voice”. The stories of students I share are either currently students or newly graduated. Our goal with this blog is to share stories of their experiences and ask them about why planetary and global health is important to them. Through sharing their stories, students will also tell us about  what drew them into this field. The blog today is with Zarlasht who tells us about her journey as a Global Health student and her experiences that led her to where she is today. This blog will continue in the upcoming months, highlighting passionate individuals in Global Health, on the fourth Thursday of every month.

Let me introduce you to Zarlasht Jamal, a gradate from York University: Zarlasht Jamal is the Program Manager at UOSSM-Canada, an independent medical relief foundation that provides humanitarian and medical assistance. She has a research background in arms transfers and their impacts on global health security at the Dahdaleh Institute of Global Health Research at York University. During her time at the institute, Zarlasht co-authored a research paper titled “A Health-Based Case against Canadian Arms Transfers to Saudi Arabia,” published in the Health and Human Rights Journal. Zarlasht graduated from York University with a Degree in Global Health. Through her experience and educational background, she developed a strong interest in critically assessing low-resource and marginalized communities’ health within broader issues of global political-economy, food justice, and socioeconomic and human rights. Further interests include understanding the root causes of humanitarian crises and the humanitarian sector’s role (for better or for worse) and working towards a radically different world than the one we have today.

How do you see your role in maintaining and facilitating Planetary Health?

In my role as a Program Manager at UOSSM-CANADA, when reviewing or drafting project proposals, there is a section dedicated to explaining how the proposed project will prevent undue harm to the environment. As a medical relief organization, we deal with many medical consumables. How such consumables are discarded is an important question we are continually asking ourselves. Even when it comes to procurement, there is an effort to localize and keep the carbon footprint of materials as low as possible. Aside from my day-to-day work, as someone that works in the non-profit field, I have become more aware and critical of how the humanitarian sector is built and operates. If you look at the funding trends, private donations from individual philanthropists and for-profit private organizations are increasing every year. Often, these are people working and making their money from industries that exacerbate global health challenges. And this presents a conflict of interest when deciding how the funds must be spent, determining deliverables, and especially when conducting research.

Did you enjoy your time at University?

I absolutely loved my time at York University, granted there were many ups and downs. I have had the good fortune of being taught by incredible professors who are passionate about their subject matter and their students’ progress. A memorable event from my second year is when Professor Claudia Chaufan stopped me after class to ask how I was doing as I seemed a bit upset to her. Now her courses are very discussion-based, and because of how interesting the topics are, the discussions are always lively. She noticed that I was pretty much quiet throughout her class.   I told her that I had done poorly in one of my assignments for another class and found it somewhat difficult. She not only offered to read this assignment but also read my future assignments for this class to provide feedback. At the time, I was shocked. But this is who Professor Claudia is, and it was no surprise that every student that interacted with her loved her. She has played an essential role in cultivating my passion and dedication to the field of global health.

Through University, I have had the company of friends that I hope to see in my life for years to come. These are friends who pushed me to be better. During my time at York, I have had friends help with job applications, help me destress, and friends who made sure we all ate while working late on our assignments. My favourite memories with my friends include grabbing Wendy’s frosty after final exams or the last class (a sort of a ritual), blasting music during our study break and dancing in empty lecture halls.

How have your past experiences shaped your understanding of Global Health?

In Global Health, we talk about privilege, social location, and individual choice restriction. These concepts come very naturally to me and are integral to my understanding of Global Health. I had spent a good portion of my childhood in Afghanistan and immigrated to Canada when I was ten years old. Living in Afghanistan made me aware of the world’s dual reality. For the longest time, I saw Afghanistan as a different place than Canada and did not think about the “why”. However, as I grew older, I realized that these differences were not coincidental but a product of a much larger and intertwined system. A lot of what I have studied in the classroom were circumstances I had experienced first-hand or witnessed family members go through. My Global Health classes gave a name to those experiences and helped explain them through a theory. And so, my interest in improving health access and equity comes from having lived in Afghanistan, a place with profound health inequities and healthcare gaps.

I have also learned that in Global Health, there exists a vast, often untapped, knowledge in the community. During my undergrad years, I volunteered with SEEDS (Supporting education, empowerment, and development through science) and taught STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) workshops in an afterschool program for elementary students. In one of the workshops, students were asked to identify a community problem and develop a solution. These students truly surprised me with their level of understanding and knowledge regarding issues of food security, climate change, obesity, and income inequality. And I am talking about grade 4 and 5 students!! For example, one group identified obesity as a problem in their community. I was thrilled to see these students talk about the lack of fresh food available in their supermarket in contrast to unhealthy foods that were readily available, cheap and marketed everywhere. They were essentially talking about the social determinants of health. Their solutions were thoughtful and inspiring and focused on community-level changes and addressing social determinants of health. My takeaway and advice to others are that there is so much incredible knowledge in the community, and anyone wanting to work in Global Health must find a meaningful way to engage with it. Therefore, I understand Global Health as an area of practice and research that takes form, shape and is advanced in the community.

What roles have people around you (parents, siblings, teachers, friends, mentors, managers, etc.) played in motivating you and facilitating your career journey?

I grew up very informed, and I think that played a significant role in why I chose Global Health. I have fond memories of watching the news with my dad and discussing world issues with him. Privilege was something that my dad discussed with us a lot and reinforced the importance of service to others. Overall, my parents have been very supportive and enthusiastic about my education and career decisions. They both never discouraged me from anything and always impressed on me the importance of working hard and doing meaningful work. I loved sharing the things I was learning in class or assignments that I was working on with my mom. She has always helped me put my problems into perspective and focus on enjoying the journey rather than worrying about the end.

My teachers and mentors have taught me to be imaginative and innovative in designing Global Health futures. And so, I am very ambitious and cautiously optimistic when I am thinking of solutions to our Global Health problems.

How do you spend your free time?

I like to read fiction and fiction only. And this is justified because I already do enough non-fiction reading for school and work. I am also trying out embroidery. I have the materials sitting under my bed, just need to find the time to start.

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