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Alumni achievements: Meet Dalhousie’s 2021 Aurum Award winners
The Aurum Awards celebrate Dalhousie alumni for their outstanding achievements and contributions in research and innovation, community engagement and leadership. This year, we recognize five individuals who are helping to build a better world through their work and generosity on a local, national and global level.
Dr. Irving Fish (MD’64)
For years, Irving Fish (MD’64) helped remove barriers to academic excellence among his patients as director of Pediatric Neurology at New York University Grossman School of Medicine. But it was a resident doctor he mentored from Ethiopia, Tesfaye Zelleke, who opened his eyes to other ways to make a difference.
“He chose poverty in Ethiopia as his research project,” recalls Dr. Fish, who is now retired. “It is well known that the best way out of poverty is education. But as we began to look at education there, we noted that, traditionally, 25 per cent of students dropped out of school by the end of the first grade, and more than 50 per cent dropped out by the end of fifth grade. We thought that if we could give disadvantaged children the tools they needed to succeed before starting school, they could do as well as any other students.”
Joined by his wife, Ilene, a lawyer, Menelik Desta, one of Ethiopia’s most prominent psychiatrists, and community representatives in Ethiopia, Dr. Fish and Dr. Zelleke launched the Ethiopian School Readiness Initiative (ESRI) in 2007. Initially run under the umbrella of NYU Langone Medical Center, the comprehensive non-profit program is now an independent organization. The program gives disadvantaged children ages three to six opportunities to thrive academically. Families that participate in the program have access to early education, health care, and monthly parent education sessions led by Dr. Desta.
“We have educated more than 65,000 children over the past 13 years,” Dr. Fish says. “Over 60 per cent of our children can read by the time they get to school, which is probably our greatest accomplishment. Our second biggest accomplishment is that some of our kids are now in college.” Dr. Fish adds that ESRI works in partnership with local and federal education authorities to ensure its long-term sustainability and has given local populations a stake in its operation and success.
The initiative has had other far-reaching impacts in Ethiopia. Monthly parent education sessions have helped reduce the prevalence of corporal punishment among participating families. It has also addressed poverty and gender inequality by providing financial and vocational training, as well as start-up funding, to mothers.
“Teachers tell us that they know whose mothers are in business because the children are more confident, more socially adept, and learn better. There is a women’s moiety—a family moiety—to this program as well,” Dr. Fish says.
Much to Dr. Fish’s delight, the initiative and its impacts have earned him an Aurum Award. More than 60 years on, the instruction he received at Dalhousie continues to inspire him to make a difference. “My professors taught me that I had a responsibility to serve the public and gave me the tools to help people to the best of my ability,” he says. “I am very happy that the institution that gave me this gift is proud of how I have used it. I am thankful to be chosen for this award.”
Dr. Fish is now using the inspiration and education Dalhousie gave him to grow ESRI so that it has a presence across Ethiopia. “We have opened 87 schools in regions where 75 per cent of the population resides,” says Dr. Fish, who celebrated his 83rd birthday in May. “It is my aspiration that eventually all the children in these regions will have access to preschool. It is also our aspiration to extend our preschool presence so that we are in regions where 95 per cent of the population lives. Our work won’t be done until every child has access, which likely will be long after I’m gone. But I will continue to do whatever I can to achieve that goal.”
Ayat El Dewary (BA’04)
It was a journey that Ayat El-Dewary (BA’04) was not sure she would survive. Displaced from Kuwait during the first Gulf War in 1990, her parents—both Egyptian expats—travelled for weeks by car to Iraq and then Jordan before securing a flight on a warplane to Cairo
“It was horrifying to say the least,” recalls El-Dewary, who was seven years old at the time. “I saw first-hand the work of the humanitarians on the ground. Based on what I went through with my family, I immediately knew my purpose in life was to serve others.”
More specifically, El-Dewary knew she wanted to work with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). In 2011, she fulfilled that childhood ambition. As the Representative ad interim, El-Dewary oversees the office leading partnerships with the Qatar government and the private sector to raise funds, mobilize resources and develop advocacy strategies. Her work contributes to making a difference in the lives of displaced individuals globally. And her efforts have helped raise over $200 million USD from donors and partners. She also twice secured the largest-ever contributions from a single donor in the UNHCR’s 70-year history.
“By cultivating partnerships and relationships with donors, the displaced populations we serve have received much needed support and essential needs, such as health care, shelter and cash grants,” El-Dewary says. “The difference these contributions make is heart-warming and it encourages me to find more innovative ways to engage donors and ensure that refugees remain a priority.”
El-Dewary has also made a difference in the lives of refugees studying at Dalhousie University through a bursary fund she initiated. “The bursary was a way to honour the university—how it shaped my world views and helped me understand what I wanted to do in life and where I needed to be,” she explains. “I did it for two years, using some savings. I would like to continue doing something like this.”
It is her efforts to help those who are displaced as she once was that have earned El-Dewary an Aurum Award. However, the news came as something of a surprise for her. “I find it hard to speak about my work, to be honest. I just feel it is my responsibility to do what I can for others who are less fortunate. I am incredibly honoured and humbled by the award. It means even more to be recognized by my alma mater.”
Ultimately, it is the fundamental goodness of the people who surround her and humanity that continually inspire El-Dewary to make a difference. And she sees more opportunities to have an impact, such as instilling her values and commitment to positive change in her children.
“Nelson Mandela once said, ‘There is no passion to be found playing small, in settling for a life that is less than the one you are capable of living,’” she says. “As a woman and a woman of colour, I dream of a just, equal and humane world for all. I will continue to live my life accordingly and I vow to do whatever I can to achieve this goal, not only for my generation, but for many generations to come.”
Teresa Mellish (Dip Agr’66)
Like many farmers across Prince Edward Island, Teresa Mellish (Dip Agr’66) has planted her share of seeds over the years. But one that she helped plant in 1980 has had a significant impact among farm families in East Africa.
That seed, Farmers Helping Farmers, is a non-profit initiative that has conducted hundreds of development projects in Kenya to address food security, health and education challenges. Mellish not only co-founded it but has also helped fund it in her role as treasurer and coordinator.
“My motivation for this is justice,” Mellish says. “I was fortunate to be born in Canada, to be well fed as a child, to be educated here and have a job. The women I meet there are the same as me, but they have not had the same advantages. It’s important for me to share what I can.”
That desire to share first took hold in the early 1970s when Mellish and her husband, Ken Mellish, who is also an alumnus, volunteered with Cuso International, a Canadian charity dedicated to ending world poverty. But it was at the 1979 provincial International Family Farm Consultation, which Mellish helped organize, that the idea for Farmers Helping Farmers took root. During the event, a hurricane tore through Dominica, decimating the banana crop of one of the attendees. In addition to raising funds to help reestablish that crop, Mellish and other PEI farmers discussed the possibility of visiting developing countries to see farming conditions first-hand and explore other ways to make a difference.
“We submitted a proposal to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) for funding and we chose Kenya and Tanzania because we really connected with their delegates at the event,” Mellish says. “Twenty-two of us travelled to East Africa for four weeks in 1980 and then we brought a group of farmers from there to PEI. That’s how we got started.”
To date, Farmers Helping Farmers has funded projects valued at more than $10 million through contributions from PEI farmers and CIDA. These projects include helping Kenyans grow more and better food, building school cookhouses to address hunger, installing rainwater storage tanks to improve access to water, and delivering programs in cooperation with the Atlantic Veterinary College to enhance dairy production. Funding has also provided communities with access to school lunch programs, mosquito bed nets, cookstoves, seeds, and airtight bags for safely storing maize and beans. Through these efforts, Farmers Helping Farmers has touched the lives of more than 100,000 Kenyans.
Mellish says the overarching goal of the Farmers Helping Farmers initiative is to help communities develop the knowledge and resources to address economic, nutrition, and education challenges through strategic partnerships with families, women’s groups and schools.
“We work with each community for five years because we do not want to create any kind of dependence,” Mellish explains. “At the end of those five years, families have a better diet, better income and they are better educated.”
In addition to working with Farmers Helping Farmers, Mellish donates to her local food bank and, with her husband, owns and operates New Perth Farms, which breeds Dutch warmblood horses. She is honoured to be recognized with an Aurum Award for her involvement with Farmers Helping Farmers and hopes it continues to bear fruit for years to come.
“We are just starting to do a strategic plan to guide us for the next 10 years,” she says. “I would like to see us go on pretty much as we are now. The fact that I get to work directly with people there continues to motivate me as does the support we have here in PEI. We are a small organization, but very effective.”
Doug Townsend (BCOMM’04)
From the moment husband and wife restauranteurs Doug Townsend (BCOMM’04) and Renée Lavallée opened The Canteen, their Dartmouth-based eatery, in 2014, they looked for ways to make a difference and address food security in the community. But that effort took on a new dimension in March 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Nova Scotia.
“Like most restauranteurs, we had to shut down The Canteen and our other eatery, The Little C Take-Out, when the provincial state of emergency was announced,” Townsend recalls. “At first we worried about our future but soon we realized there were many people in the community who were even more impacted by the pandemic.”
Knowing they had a lot of food on hand that would soon spoil, Townsend and Lavallée took action. They reached out to The North Grove, a community hub that offers programs and services to address issues such as food insecurity in Dartmouth North, to see how they could be of help. Over the years, the couple have supported its mission as volunteers, and Townsend serves on its board. Together, they came up with a plan: The Canteen and The Little C Take-Out would transition into The Canteen Community Kitchen and provide meals to those in need.
“Our number-one value is community impact,” Townsend says. “Renée and I determined early on that we don’t need much to be happy. The possibility of owning a fancy car or multiple properties is not what gets us up in the morning. It’s the excitement of knowing we can have a positive impact in our community. The fact that we were able to help at a time like this was really satisfying.”
Supported by regular customers, North Grove, and Feeding Others of Dartmouth Society, which provides free nutritious meals to adults in need throughout the Halifax Regional Municipality, Townsend and Lavallée have been preparing hearty, nutritious and protein rich meals for distribution to families throughout the community.
“The goal was not only to keep people well-nourished but also provide them with something comforting and delicious,” Townsend says. “We consulted with the North Grove to determine what we would need, Renée worked out some recipes, and we figured out the logistics for preparing and shipping the meals. We ramped up our management team to oversee this work at both of our locations and our regular customers supported our efforts through donations. It all came together pretty naturally.”
To date, the community kitchen has provided 14,000 meals for people in need, and up to 500 a week at its peak. Feedback from the community, customers, and the partners who helped make it happen has been positive, and the effort earned a shout out from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. More recently, its impact was recognized with an Aurum Award, which celebrates alumni like Townsend whose contributions strengthen communities. “That was really exciting,” Townsend says. “I don’t give back for the recognition, but I really appreciate it.”
Townsend says the goal now is to see how The Canteen and Little C can continue to address issues of food security in the community even as the eateries return to regular operations. “I think it’s going to be an evolution of what we were doing,” he says. “We want to find other creative ways to give back using the resources we have. Once we have a degree of normalcy return, we’ll look into that further. But it is important for us to do what we can and have an impact.”
Lee Cohen (LLB’80)
It was a story that grabbed international headlines. In July 1987, 174 Sikhs arrived in Shelburne, Nova Scotia, seeking to escape a civil war in Punjab, India. It was a lifechanging moment not just for these new arrivals, but also for Lee Cohen (LLB’80), the lawyer who represented them.
“That was my first immigration case and it exposed me to many things that were disturbing,” Cohen recalls. “Specifically, it was the amount of racism I encountered that was connected to Canada’s immigration policies, public attitudes toward immigration, and the fact that there was no one in the local legal community who seemed to be doing anything about it. But it also was exhilarating; I saw there was work to be done to change that and I have devoted the rest of my life to it.”
By dedicating his expertise and legal practice to immigration, refugees and human rights matters, Cohen has not only helped hundreds of clients find peace, hope and opportunity as Canadian citizens but has also shifted government and public perceptions in the process. It is a legacy made even more remarkable by the fact that his initial decision to study law was essentially a whim.
“I applied to Dalhousie without a mission,” he concedes. “But it seemed like some force was moving me in that direction. It did not really click until I started working with Dalhousie’s Legal Aid Service. When you are helping people who have been mistreated or who never had a fair shake in life, it really focuses your mind in a way that pure academic instruction can’t quite accomplish. And it was an invaluable experience in setting the course of my life.”
Cohen continues along that path, changing the course of many lives. Numbers elude him, but he can say that the wedding and graduation invitations he receives each year extend three generations deep. He has also sought to expand his impact, and inculcate his knowledge and passion among up-and-coming lawyers, through the Halifax Refugee Clinic, which he founded in 2000. Privately funded, it provides legal representation to people who claim refugee status in Nova Scotia and ensures their rights and integrity are respected.
“I’m essentially an ex-officio member now,” he says. “It was a great idea to pass the mantle to other people because they have taken it beyond where it was when I was chair of the board. The level of expertise with which the clinic staff carries out its duties and raises funds is impressive and I know it is in great hands.”
Over the years, Cohen’s efforts have been recognized with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Award, the Queen’s Jubilee Medal, the Democracy 250 award, an honourary Doctor of Divinity from the Atlantic School of Theology, and the Weldon Award for Unselfish Public Service from the Dalhousie Law Alumni Association. Now, he is adding an Aurum Award from Dalhousie to those honours. “In this work, you are very much in the trenches at all times,” he says. “The opportunity to enjoy a case you’ve won is momentary at best. Receiving an award like this is a chance to reflect and know that, in all those years when you felt alone, you weren’t. People were paying attention and deciding you need to be acknowledged for what you’ve done. That is very satisfying.”
Even more satisfying for Cohen is helping people achieve their dream of becoming Canadians. He remains focused on that mission even as he encourages others to carry on his efforts through initiatives such as the New Brunswick Refugee Clinic, which he helped found in 2016. Although he never set out to create a legacy, he would like to see it grow and provide more hope to those fleeing violence and instability. “I can think of no better reason to be alive than to make life better for somebody else,” he says.
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