Today we had an exclusive interview with Egyptian-Canadian Ally Salama. Among other achievements and titles, Ally is MENA’s Mental Health Ambassador, WHO Speaker, Founder of EMPWR MAG, and the first Arab to Host Canada’s Youth Mental Health Conference. We got to talk about how he founded EMPWR MAG, how he thinks the media can counter the stigma on mental health, him hosting the conference, and more.
Talk to us about being MENA’s Mental Health Ambassador.
I’d just like to start off by saying, that this is a self-titled responsibility I instilled upon my conscience more than it’s just a title that i wear, after speaking the WHO last July in Sharm El Sheikh in front of about 100 of the top Arab journalists, in an event aimed to destigmatize mental health.
Being mentored by Dr. Nasser Loza, he kindly invited me to attend, alongside WHO EMRO Director, Mr. Khaled Saeed, who I have the utmost respect for. That event changed my life for one sole reason. Dr. Nasser was always right. There’s nothing more powerful and impactful than talking from a lived experience. Because you are living proof that the stigma needs to be eradicated. I speak openly about my complex experience with 2 mental illness diagnoses 3 years ago on social media.
The truth is mental Illnesses are just like physical illnesses in their exact same importance and when they’re brushed off, it’s no different than brushing off a physical condition that worsens into a chronic illness. That’s the importance of my job. That’s simply what my job entails me to do in starting events, initiatives, conferences, partnerships, and taking care of myself.
It’s a huge deal to me that young kids grow up in families that can support their holistic wellbeing, and not just what they deem to be “health”. Because whether we like it or not, mental health is health. Do we pa attention to it? That’s the real question. And that’s why we’re here to change things around
How did EMPWR Mag come to life?
As a 23 year old who saw a different perspective of the world living in Canada, I couldn’t believe there wasn’t any culturally relevant Mental Health information accessible in the MEA. That probably says a lot. EMPWR was born out of frustration with my mental health disease. Especially being a male, I believe leaders sometimes withdraw from addressing mental health in the MEA due to the lingering stigma no matter how much “awareness” happens.
In 5 words whenever anyone asks me “Ally, What is EMPWR?” they always get the same response: EMPWR Merges Mental Health with Culture. Mental health is wellness. It’s not just revolving around illnesses. It’s wellbeing. How can we merge the bright and the dark side of mental health with our culture? That’s what EMPWR tackles.
It came to life to provide all our third culture generation the contextually relevant information that they can relate to vs western publications that do not speak to the English speaking Arab that is deeply rooted within their culture. There is a long way ahead – but a great accomplishment at the magazine was covering Egypt’s #MeToo movement’s on Empathy Always Win’s which is the Magazine’s podcast, currently ranking #1 on Apple podcasts in Egypt.
We’re only going to tackle more sensitive subjects to normalize conversations in a manner that can allow openness and change for youth in the MENA to grow up in an environment that can support their mental health and wellbeing.
How are you getting ready to host ‘Navigating the Future of Us’?
I’m seriously just sleeping well and preparing my equipment and material for our Zoom Conference. The Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Youth, Ms. Bardish Chagger just sent in her recorded words for us to air @ EMPWRNG MNDS this Saturday, which is the conference by EMPWR – presenting Canada’s Online COVID-19 Relief Youth Mental Conference. I’m not gonna lie. I’m quite nervous but I also feel something good is about to happen.
Talk to us about the conference and what it seeks to achieve.
This conference is a huge deal for me. EMPWRNG MNDS is presenting Canada’s Online COVID-19 Relief Online Mental Health Conference, I believe that we need to shed a light on the importance of staying mentally well in lights of heightened tensions amongst youth, and especially for our main target demographic, immigrants, and minority communities, living under challenging circumstances.
On Saturday our conference is aimed at targeting marginalized Canadian youth, including Arabs facing mental health challenges due to our current pandemic with the purpose of navigating solutions around common Mental Health challenges arising now.
Shining a light on minority Canadians, of which I belong within, who may not have easy-accessible mental health resources is our primary step in addressing our conference’s main mission.
It’s more than just that. We have officially started our efforts in organizing the world’s largest youth mental health conference and the largest mental health conference in the MENA for 2021, by hosting the Canadian Minister of Youth at EMPWRNG MNDS on July 18.
And honestly guys, Without the government of Canada’s support, nothing could simply be. I quit my job to focus on EMPWRNG MNDS and go full-time with EMPWR, as we’re opening a podcasting division following our success. So the conference will be recorded as a podcast as well. We’re in talks with on of the top players in the region to enter a podcasting agreement with too. So you can see how this is more than a conference for me. It’s the start of a movement.
Talk to us about how the media can counter the stigma about mental health.
By listening. it’s really that simple. We’re living in a global mental health crisis and it’s no longer time to hide. I and many others had conditions that nearly got as bad as suicide. We made it through because others listened. So that’s all I ask the media. Listen and do not label, please.
What’s the achievement you’re proud of the most?
Not giving up on myself with all I could see was darkness with no way out.
How do you think the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting our mental health?
It’s making us more anxious as a youth population in general. We’re still yet to get factual information due to concurrent studies now being made, but i can assure you that loneliness has definitely spiked; big time.
What are your future plans and what do you hope to achieve?
My future plans include growing EMPWR as a social enterprise. After Saturday, we’ll be working on EMPWRNG MNDS 2021 in developing the World Youth Mental Health Conference, hosting it in the MENA.
The end goal of EMPWRNG MNDS is to fundraise yearly to develop the MENA’s Mental Health Research Hospital such as the 57357 Children’s Cancer hospital to collect research and data to serve the Arab world. I’m an idealist. I believe we can make a change. I do believe it’s possible to bring some of the most transformational youth leaders and harness some of the best minds on Middle Eastern grounds.
As for EMPWR, I do aim for it to become an open learning platform, whereby we can harness the power of communities and develop a TEDx Model where select individuals are assigned to be EMPWR Ambassadors, hosting peer support network groups in institutions and schools.
That way EMPWR can harness the power of communities all over the region to spot pain points earlier on the lifecycle of individuals and navigate solutions quicker. I’d like to close by saying this: my ultimate dream as a kid was being a singer.
Today my ultimate dream as a 23-year-old is to become a leader who can develop EMPWR and EMPWRNG MNDS, set a stage for others, then sing.