Saara Bhanji, BA’07, MSc’16, loves preparing people for “the job of living.”
From rehabilitating individuals with workplace injuries, to helping children achieve their developmental milestones, to settling immigrants and refugees into their new lives, the Vancouver-based occupational therapist has used her passion – and now her profession – to become one of the nation’s leading voices on cultural empathy and “a powerful role model for women across the country.”
“Every day, I try to listen to what each person needs. Obviously, the particulars are different, but what is universal is the need to be treated with dignity and respect. I empathize with the experiences of being forced to answer for their identity, the colour of their skin, or their country of origin or religion.”
The challenges faced by newcomers are close to home for Bhanji as her mother came to Canada as a refugee with her family from Uganda during the time of Idi Amin.
“I came to appreciate of how my mother’s experience of leaving everything she knew and loved and coming to Canada to start again with few resources. At 15, when others were entertaining and discovering themselves, she was working as much as she could to help support the family.”
Bhanji’s first exposure to volunteering was as a 5-year old, making and delivering sandwiches to a youth shelter with her parents and members of her faith community.
As part of the Ismaili Muslim community in Vancouver, she learned to celebrate differences, as well as the importance of reaching out to help others.
“My parents taught me the value of education in changing lives. My mom became a pharmacist; my father, whose family left Tanzania, became a doctor. They continue to volunteer their time around the world, supporting causes from disaster relief, health education and Operation Rainbow Canada, which provides free reconstructive surgery for cleft lip and cleft palate deformities to impoverished children and young adults in developing countries.”
At Western, Bhanji co-chaired the Red Cross Humanitarian Issues Committee at Huron University College and promoted awareness of refugee issues on campus by organizing a large-scale film festival on the Rwandan genocide. She also co-founded the International Women’s Human Rights Project. Under her leadership, that group raised the issue of global sex trafficking to the student body through interactive film screenings, guest speakers, and public events.
“Girls and women are disproportionately affected by war, poverty, inequality, racism, violence, and harassment. I wanted to contribute to systemic change, which meant either politics and policy making or health care. Studying gender barriers, isolation and social aggressions made me better equipped to be an advocate for those who may not be in a position to advocate for themselves.”
While still a student, Bhanji traveled to South America to deliver education around HIV/AIDS. She also produced a documentary called Making HERSTORY about the experiences and challenges of young women immigrants and refugees in Vancouver.
At 21, she used her business acumen to found the Association of Women’s Action, Research and Empowerment (AWARE). Through that group, she has worked with young women to overcome barriers based on race, class, poverty, ethnic background, sexual orientation and gender inequality.
In 2012, Bhanji was selected by the U.S. State Department as one of five Canadians to participate in the International Visitor Leadership Program, a prestigious Canada-U.S. exchange whose alumni include more than 335 current or former chiefs of state or heads of government. That same year, she received the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case for her dedication to advancing women’s equality in Canada.
“Western was the place where I first learned to face fear and figure out what I was truly capable of doing,” said Bhanji, who, in addition to her Western degrees, has a master’s degree in gender studies from the London School of Economics. “My (Western) professors told me to feel the fear and do it anyway. They believed in me and gave me gentle pushes out of the nest into the wider world. They were great resources and I’m still in contact today, sharing my experiences and challenges.”
The courage and fearlessness with which she pushes forward to effect change leaves an indelible impression on those around her. She has been described by the President of the Ismaili Muslim Council for Canada as “a powerful role model for women across the country.”
“It’s true that fear is contagious,” Bhanji said. “But the good news is that compassion is contagious, too. On my worst days, when I am afraid or desolate, I still know what the right thing to do is. When you know that action may hurt you, hesitation is natural. But you do it anyway.”