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Sept. 12, 2018

It was while growing up in Southwestern Ontario that family physician and researcher Dr. Neil Arya first became aware of the social and health challenges of refugees in Canada.

Arya, the son of Indian immigrant parents who had been refugees from what is now Pakistan, was struck by the struggles of Ugandan refugees who moved to his area and tried to begin new lives in Canada.

“I remember the influx of Ugandan Asians in 1972, who came with nothing and relied on the support of small community groups there. I was probably drawn to that experience, as many of those became lifelong friends,” he says.

So began a lifelong passion for refugee and global health that led Arya to Wilfrid Laurier University, where he has just been named the Department of Health Sciences' first Scholar-in-Residence. He will also serve as a fellow at the International Migration Research Centre.

“We are delighted to welcome Dr. Arya to Laurier,” said Jeffery Jones, Laurier’s interim associate vice-president: research. “As a respected scientist and clinician, Dr. Arya will contribute to our understanding of family medicine systems around the world, while providing insight on issues facing marginalized and refugee populations.”

During his two-year appointment at Laurier, Arya will transfer the knowledge he’s gained during his distinguished medical career to deliver directed studies courses to senior Health Sciences students, working to enhance student opportunities abroad.

Since his undergraduate days, Arya has dedicated himself to international health projects in Central America, India, Tanzania and elsewhere. He’s since gone on to co-write several books on preparing medical students for work experiences abroad, as well as on how health professionals can help to sow peace in places of conflict.

This fall, he will also release a new book that examines the historical, political and social factors that influence the health of Indigenous, inner-city and migrant populations in Canada.

Arya was the founding director of the Global Health Office at Western University in London, Ont., and serves as an adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo and Western, as well as an assistant clinical professor in Family Medicine at McMaster University.

Ten years ago, Arya was inspired to open Kitchener-Waterloo’s first refugee health clinic, which serves the health needs of hundreds of newcomers to the region. Initially tasked only with conducting health screens for refugee claimants, Arya has grown the clinic so that it now offers comprehensive care through a varied staff of health professionals to assist newcomers manage their health as they begin their new lives in Canada.

Ketan Shankardass, chair of Laurier’s Department of Health Sciences, says Laurier is proud to draw on that expertise and the wealth of connections that Arya has built with health leaders around the world.

“This is a significant appointment because it helps Laurier to continue to establish a foothold in global health,” said Shankardass. “I think his appointment will lead to a lot more opportunities for our students, not just in research at Laurier, but in international collaborations where students can participate in exchanges and explore careers that go beyond Ontario and Canada.”

Shankardass believes global health is a critical area of study for anyone involved in health sciences, because it too affects Canadian health care, citing the recent example of the influx of Syrian refugees to Canada.

“We want Laurier Health Sciences students to be aware of the realities of refugee health and the impact it has on our systems here,” says Shankardass. “Those of our students who go on to become clinicians are going to face global health issues and people who need high quality care.”

Arya is looking forward to collaborating with Laurier researchers, building new partnerships, and working directly with Health Sciences students.

“I’m excited to work with students on the directed studies program, which is such a different way of learning. And I often learn from students too about different ways of tackling problems,” he said.

Arya plans to work with several Health Sciences students on a research project to better understand family medicine systems across the world: how training differs in various regions, the different ways health care is accessed and structured, and how that impacts health systems.

“It’s important research and it’s good to open up the eyes of students to systems other than the Canadian system,” says Arya.

Laurier recognized Arya’s commitment to both local and global health improvement in 2011, when the university conferred Arya with an honorary Doctor of Letters. Arya also earned the Geeta Gupta Award for Equity and Diversity from the College of Family Physicians of Canada Award of Excellence in 2009, and the American Public Health Association’s Mid-Career Award in International Health in 2011.

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