Insights November 2021

The Legacy of “Google Ali”

Susan Scott

Ali Abid 

Tayyaba Abid tells a story about her first date with her future husband, Ali Abid. They were walking in downtown Victoria, BC, when he noticed a homeless person. “Give me a minute,” he said. He walked over to the man and asked him whether he needed anything, then bought him a cup of coffee and gave him a gift card for food.

“Who would do this on a date?” asks Tayyaba Abid. “It was really attractive.” But, as she was to learn, her husband was different. Anyone who met him in any one of his numerous capacities talked about his compassion, energy, humour and unwillingness to accept the status quo if it was preventing excellence.

Marlies van Dijk – who would later become Ali Abid’s work leader in Calgary, AB – first met him at a conference in Vancouver, BC, and was immediately impressed by his enthusiasm and energy. We should raze this and start all over again, the young man would say. It was not that he was interested in destruction; his aim was to create better ways of doing things. And, unlike most of us, he was not content with merely seeing the better way – he did not rest until it was perfected. 

When talking about him, van Dijk is always reminded of the saying “Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events, small minds discuss people,” because he was constantly exploring how to do things more effectively.

“If he told me he was going to jump off a cliff, I would go with him,” says van Dijk, lead of the Alberta Health Services (AHS) Design Lab and Pivot Group, such was her faith in the young man’s vision.

van Dijk was not the only one who was impressed. Immediately after his death, Twitter “blew up” with comments from stricken people, her obituary for him on LinkedIn had 14,000 views and, in 24 hours, the Southern Alberta Chapter of the Canadian College of Health Leaders (CCHL) was busy establishing the Ali Abid Service Award to be announced later in 2021.

In 2019, Se-Inyenede Onobrakpor moved to Canada from Australia with a doctor’s degree from Nigeria. She was seeking a job in health management or administration but everyone discouraged her by saying that such jobs did not exist in Canada, or that they were given to nurses, not physicians. Onobrakpor participated in a couple of CCHL Zoom seminars at which Ali Abid spoke. It was the “eureka” moment and it changed the course of her search, opening up new possibilities.

“I did not know Ali personally, but his death has been nothing but heartbreaking,” says Onobrakpor, who is now the program co-ordinator of Alberta Cervical Cancer Screening Programs. “I was thrilled with Ali’s passion and humour . . . When Ali was in a room, he couldn’t be missed. He had the ability to merge humour with innovation to gain results or to get a conversation going.”

Ali Abid was born in Karachi, Pakistan, in 1987. He was the youngest of four children and the only boy. His father, Mirza Mohsin Ali, was the captain of a cargo ship and often away from home. “He was a very loving son and will always be with me,” says his mother Tanveer Mohsin. When he was 15, his oldest sister sponsored the rest of the family to come to Canada where they took a considerable tumble in finances and status. “As an immigrant you have to work from zero and we weren’t so young,” says his mother.

His father became a security guard and his mother took courses to become an interpreter working in many venues, including schools and hospitals, and for Ontario Works, helping other Urdu-speaking newcomers. One of the things that may have influenced Abid’s broad vision was the fact that his parents came from two different streams of Islam: his father was Shia and his mother, Sunni. “But we were very liberal in attitude and on the basic things we were one,” says his’s mother. He was later to say to her, “I’m only a Muslim; I don’t believe in sects.”

Abid’s father became ill and eventually died in 2015, so money was even scarcer. He started working while in grade 10, often holding down two jobs in the evenings while he ploughed through high school, achieved a degree in psychology from McMaster University in Hamilton, ON, then went on to obtain a diploma in cardiac sonography from Mohawk College, ON. This was followed by an MA in health administration from the University of British Columbia, BC. 

Ali and Tayyaba Abid were married in 2014 and two years later, they moved to Medicine Hat, AB, where he had a job in quality improvement with AHS.

The first Muslims settled in Medicine Hat in 1979 and today there are more than 300 families, a small enough number that most of them know each other through the mosque that acts as a community centre as well as a place of prayer. Ali Abid and his young son were familiar figures at Friday prayers, according to Aijaz Ahmad who struck up a friendship with him in part because of a shared Pakistani background and in part because they both worked at the hospital.

Although he was extremely humble, he was always chatting, telling jokes and “he giggled a lot,” says Ahmad, an internist and nephrologist. He always had good ideas relating to the community, such as setting up a food bank and holding inter-faith dinners and an open house in the wake of the attack on a Quebec mosque. Another of his ideas was to improve communication in the congregation to which end he set up a mosque email account.

However, much of Abid’s work was in Calgary and the 293-km-long journey became arduous and took precious time from the family, so he and his wife decided to move to Calgary with their two children. It was a great loss for Medicine Hat according to Ahmad, although he and Abid kept in touch through numerous phone calls and less frequent visits.

After arriving in Calgary, he began working with van Dijk at the AHS Design Lab where he was assigned to handle some highly complex tasks. The lab uses creative ways of solving complexity not only in the AHS, but also with related partners such as Alberta Blue Cross, bringing multiple players in health and care to the table, according to van Dijk. “He believed in progress and evolution,” she says, adding that he had a knack of not seeing barriers.

 When van Dijk and Abid formed a consulting agency called the Pivot Group, on the side, she dithered about whether to go ahead with it. In typical fashion he said, “Do it. What stops you?”

Abid’s projects included a “bold,” client-directed re-design for homecare. In 2020, he almost single-handedly organized the first AHS Launchpad competition for new ideas in healthcare delivery, attracting 143 applications for the chance to win mentorship, exposure and grant money. He helped the Calgary YMCA re-tool their summer camps so that they could continue with their activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. He was also deeply involved in setting up vaccination clinics at meatpacking plants, often hotbeds of COVID-19 infection. Because of his uncanny way of digging up information on the Internet or creating charts, his colleagues dubbed him “Google Ali.” 

But, most of all, he relished mentoring people from all walks of life so that they could move forward in their careers. “He lifted people wherever he went,” says Deirdre Lake, executive director of Alberta International Medical Graduates Association (AIMEGA) where, as a volunteer, he conducted seminars. “He was constantly inspiring others, it was so infectious,” says Lake.

Like Onobrakpor, Mohammad Rahman met Ali Abid via Zoom at three of four of these training sessions. Rahman found him to be extraordinarily inspiring and was devastated to hear of his death in a motorcycle accident. “Oh, my God, it’s a big loss,” he says with tears in his eyes.

Ali Abid was a natural for AIMGA, which helps doctors with foreign degrees find healthcare jobs in Alberta because, as Lake points out, he understood the immigrant experience and was a “bright light” to their members.

As in Medicine Hat, he was very active in Calgary’s Akram Jomaa Mosque. Realizing that there was a lot of misinformation about COVID-19 swirling around, he organized a Zoom session for congregation members so that they could pose their questions to medical people in order to dispel the myths. He also set up a number of vaccination clinics in immigrant areas of Calgary and convinced many people to roll up their sleeves.

Worried about lonely seniors, he used his free time to set up a project, Gen-Help, connecting volunteers with the elderly to visit with them, read or even help them with new technology. Instead of letting the arrival of COVID-19 and the subsequent quarantines shut down the work, he changed course. He, his wife and two children aged four and five sat down every night at the kitchen table and made cards for the shut-in elderly. “We loved doing it; the children used stickers and colours while we would write,” his wife recalls. Eventually other people pitched in and she reckons that they delivered about 3,000 cards. Often managers of the seniors’ homes contacted them to tell them what joy the gesture brought to the shut-ins.

Ali Abid used to say, “There is nothing hard in this world, so long as you are willing to do it.” Was it nature or nurture that made him view the world this way with energy and good humour? There is general agreement that he was born a special person and that his faith meant a great deal to him, although he was very liberal in his views. “He had read the Quran several times and was in the process of reading it through again,” says his wife. “He wanted to be a scholar, but he gave it up in order to make change.”

In 2018, his mother expressed a wish to go on the Hajj – the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Islam’s holiest city. Considered a mandatory religious duty that must be carried out at least once in a lifetime, the Hajj is one of the Five Pillars of Islam and attended by millions of the devout. His mother was considering leaving from Pakistan with a group but he said, “No, I will take you.” No easy feat considering the vast crowds, the scorching heat of Saudi Arabia and the number of sometimes stressful rituals performed over five or six days.

“It was wonderful,” says his mother. “At every step he was giving, giving, giving.”

After he returned home, his wife noticed a difference. “He changed for the better. He was always a good guy, but he became more humble,” she says. Her husband had always had a thing about expensive watches and the latest smartphones. In his new humility, he bought a cheap watch and a flip phone. The latter did not last very long because it was useless for a busy man who needed to be hooked up to the Internet anywhere and everywhere.

While he was busy at work, as a volunteer and as a husband and dad, he did not neglect his own career aspirations. His dream was to become a doctor because he believed it would further his reach. In what spare time he had, he prepared to sit for the University of Calgary medical school entrance exams, spending time with Ahmad and Lake to hone his interview skills. But with his teenage years spent studying and working, Abid yearned to do something for fun as well and in the summer of 2020 purchased a 400cc motorbike, which he upgraded to a 600cc model in the summer of 2021. On July 16, 2021, saying, “I’ll be back but I might be late,” Ali Abid set out for his last ride. He was never to see his wife or his children again.

But this is not the end of the story as Ali Abid’s legacy lives on in the people whose lives he touched. “He is not forgotten,” says Lake. “I have moments when I remember his essence and being. If we were half the person he was, we would all be better.” Or, as van Dijk puts it with a touch of Abid’s humour, “Everyone emulates what he did, trying not to see the obstacles. He’s haunting us.” 

About the Author(s)

Susan Scott is a former journalist and the author of All Our Sisters: Stories of Homeless Women in Canada.


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