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Ayman Taha Aboulela April 20, 2013 Islamic Understanding Institute Panama City, Florida Esam Alhadi, Interviewer and Translator for University of Florida George A. Smathers Libraries Edited by Jardee Transcription Also present, Richard Saltzburg Alhadi: Thank you Dr. Ayman. We are happy to be your guests today. My name is Esam Alhadi. Welcome, Dr. Ayman Taha Aboulela, to this interview. I am from the University of Florida, and this is my co lleague, Richard Saltzburg, from the university library. This interview is taking place at the Islamic Understanding Institute in Panama City. Today is Saturday, April 20, 2013. It is now 5:00 PM. Welcome one more time, Dr. Ayman. Aboulela: Hello. Alhadi: I would like to ask you to start by giving us a short preview of the early phase of your life and education before coming to America. Aboulela: I was born in Alexa ndria in 1962. I graduated from the college of medicine at Alexandria University in 1985. I got my traini ng and M.A. degree in internal medicine. In the early 1990s, the political and economic si tuation began to deteriorate compared to the 1970s and 1980s. I left for Saudi Arabia to work there for five years. I came back from Saudi Arabia. I was intending to regist er for the doctorate degree in medicine, but because of the faltering economy at the time, I decided to take a chance and migrate to America in February 1999. Alhadi: Where did you settle upon your arrival in America? Aboulela: I came to this city.
Alhadi: To arrive directly from Alexandria to Panama City ma kes your story different from our other interviewees. Aboulela: The reason is because my brother intr oduced me to two doctors who happened to be living here. Their names are Ameena Abde lghani and Naima Abdelghani. An arrangement was made that I come here and wo rk as an assistant in Dr. Naimas office until my paperwork was completed and the necessary certificates and licenses were obtained. This lasted from 1999-2001. Alhadi: Was this a training period for you? Aboulela: I was only helping them with nursing work. This is how I managed to make a living and support my family until it was time to do my residency. In 2001, I moved to NY City and lived there for three years be fore returning back to Panama City. Alhadi: This is similar to the story we just he ard from Dr. Azzam that he picked a coastal city here because he came from a coastal city in Egypt. It seems as if those who were born close to the sea arent able to live too far from the sea. Aboulela: This is exactly the case. Alhadi: Can you tell us about your move to New York? Aboulela: I went there for th ree years between 2001 and 2004. Alhadi: How about your decision to come back to Panama City? Aboulela: New York is too big, and I felt that Panama City was good for the family. My family came with me and stayed with me since the day I arrived here. It is also because I knew most of the physicians and many other people he re. I remained and lived in Panama City since the day I came back from New York. Alhadi: Did you have opportunities to tr avel to other places including Egypt?
Aboulela: I go to Egypt every year. Alhadi: When was the last time you went to Egypt? Aboulela: I was there in August 2012. Alhadi: Do you usually fly directly to Alexandria? Aboulela: No, I go to Cairo, and fro m there to Alexandria. It was possible in the old days to fly directly to Alexandria. Th is is no longer possible. Alhadi: Does your entire family live in Alexandria? Aboulela: They all live in Alexandria. I have no family living in Cairo. Alhadi: It seems that you ar e keeping only the minimum leve l of relationship with Cairo. Aboulela: I only use the transit connec tion there. Alhadi: Now I want to move on and ask you to tell us about your pr ofession, work, and the services you offer here in Panama City. Aboulela: My field of specialty is internal medicine. I have also been certified by the American Medical Society in a medical field that was introduced two years a go and deals entirely with hypertension. Alhadi: Is this a new fi eld of medical specialty? Aboulela: Low hypertension is considered a spec ialty. New fields of specialty usually begin small and keep growing through systematic trai ning programs. I got my license in this field one year ago. This is in addition to my medical board cer tification in internal medicine in 2004. I am also involved in a number of scholarly and scientific activities within the American Medical Associati on and also the American Society of Hypertension.
Alhadi: You gave us a tour through the clinic be fore we started this interview. Thank you for that. I would like to have the conversation fr om here onwards focus more on this aspect of your activities. This work is also part of the contribution the Arab community makes to the wider Panama City community. Woul d you please give us some details about the idea behind having this clin ic and how it is doing? Aboulela: As Dr. Kamel has pointed out, ever yone knows that doctors of Arab descent are always willing to offer help to the surr ounding community. This is not the first time there has been a clinic run by doctors of Ar ab descent. We had one before in 1983, and another free clinic in 2000. This shows that having a free clinic run by doctors of Arab descent is an idea that has precedents here in Panama City and in other parts of America. We started by opening the IUI with the inten tion of creating a non-trad itional approach to the community. As you have correctly pointed out, all overseas immigrants follow very traditional ways in presenting their religion a nd representing their society. Mosques, for instance, are doing well but only within thei r traditional framework. These conditions motivated us to think of new and non-traditi onal ways to approach the wider community. This is where the IUI idea came from. I s hould state that the IU I is not a religious establishment, but rather an educational one. We chose to have it in an open area such as this plaza to make it more friendly and appro achable to the ordinary non-Muslim citizens so that they can come in whenever they want and ask questions they may have about Islam. We want them to come with a differe nt feeling than the one that they might have when they come to a religious place of worshi p. I should state that this is a group project and a collective idea. I do this work in c oordination with other fellows. We began to
offer our educational programs. The idea of having a free clinic came two years after opening the IUI. Alhadi: For the record, would you please remind us of the official name of the clinic? Aboulela: It is called Avicenna Free Clinic, and the building wher e we are currently having this interview is called the Islamic Understanding In stitute. There are many other free clinics that bear the same name in other parts of America. Alhadi: Do these clinic s function as a network? Aboulela: No, they are not connected. We picked this name in order to recognize the name of Avicenna and his contributions to the field of medicine. We started this project in this clinic and it relies on the effort s of four to five doctors. I was selected to be the medical officer. We created good connect ions with the people in the health department here in Panama City who have been very supportive an d helpful in the initia l planning stages of the clinic. They also helped us set up the criteria for patient screening and the clinics administrative procedures. The initial number of volunteer doctors has gone from five to six to twenty-five doctors at the present time We also initiated a neurology clinic; the first of its kind here in Panama City. It was established by Dr. Tabba. Dr. Kamel is one of the people offering this serv ice in this clinic. We had more than a thousand patients last year. We have always been dependent on volunteers, but with the help of a grant from the Bay Foundation we are now able to hi re a nurse practitioner, and as a result we are able to see more pa tients in the morning. Alhadi: Before getting back to more questions about the clinic, I want to ask you to shed more light on the idea, establishment, and contributio ns of the IUI that you referred to earlier.
Aboulela: The IUI was initiated in 2007, but became open to the public in 2009. It is a nonprofit organization. I believe it represents a unique idea that was proposed by a number of people, including myself. The uniqueness of this idea appears in the fact that it brings the Arab community out of its shell. We have seen that the first generation of Arab immigrants chose to stay in the shadows and practice their rituals very discreetly. The idea of presenting religion as a comprehens ive system is new and not known to many people. This is what the IUI intended to do. The idea is to break away from the strict limits, routine, and rules that mosques are known to have set for themselves. This is what we have been doing. We did a number of aw areness programs with Gulf Coast College and FSU. One of the last initiatives th at we worked on had a huge impact on the community. This was a mental health seminar. The idea for this seminar came as a result of the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The speakers touched on the issue of mental health from different pers pectives including psychological, social, and religious. It was a very good seminar and has been shown twice on TV. We also organized another seminar to help families deal with the psychological consequences of the economic recession that hit th e country during the past five years. What I want to say here is that the IUI mission is to present th e other faces of Islam rather than purely the ritual and worshiping sides. We understand Is lam to be for the blessing and well-being of all. The mission of Islam cant be transmitte d without being in direct contact with the community. Alhadi: How does the outside community get to know about the IUI and the cl inic? I live in this country and I understand what role media plays in disseminating a message. Do you have any specific channel or a method that you use to spread your message?
Aboulela: At this level, we ar e known to everyone in town. There was only one free clinic in town that was functioning before we opened our clinic. It belongs to St. Andrews Church. I visited them and learned from them how their clinic works. I also visited the health department and the managers of the two existing hospitals he re in Panama City who have all been very supportive. These we re part of our activities before we opened the clinic. We also organized a number of open-house meetings and invited a number of people, including the county commissioner. We became well known and we have also been offered a number of opportunities on ra dio and TV to talk about the clinic. Although we became well-known, we were not actually very enthusiastic about having too much media coverage because we know that we dont have the capacity to accommodate such a large number of patients wh o may come as a result of being in the media spotlight. Nevertheless, the c linic is now widely known in town. Alhadi: On mentioning the number of patients, can you give us a rough number of how many patients come to your clinic every day? Aboulela: About fifteen a day. Alhadi:How do you deal with them financially? Aboulela: This is a free clinic. After evaluati ng a patients financial status, those who meet the clinic standards and criteria get an appointment with a docto r. They dont pay anythingeven for the medicine. The only money they pay out of pocket is th e nine dollars they have to pay at the beginning, because we f acilitate their access to medicines. This happens through the Prescription Assistance Pr ogram, which helps to deliver medicines to the needy free of charge. Alhadi: How do the patients receive their medicines?
Aboulela: After entering the patients informa tion in the computer, in cluding their financial status, we pass these details to the pharmaceu tical companies who take care of helping those patients. They charge a one-time, ni ne-dollar administrative fee. They have a system in place that allows for the sending of the medicines directly to the homes of each one of the designated patients. Alhadi: Is there a maximum income that your patients cannot exceed in order to qualify for treatment in your clinic? Aboulela: Yes, but I dont reme mber the figure right now. It is not only the maximum income requirement, but we also take into account the number of family members. I believe the limit we have set is lower than the poverty line determined by the government. We have a chart that we refer to before we make a decision on these matters. Alhadi: This is excellent work and I am very happy to hear about it. These efforts must have created a very positive reaction from among th e wider Panama City community. This interview is coming to an end, but I want to ask you before we leave if you are fully pleased with the Arab community in Panama City in terms of its attempts to integrate and contribute to the public life in the city. Aboulela: The situation has improved very much la tely. When I came to Panama City, I felt that the Arab community was very stable and we ll-established, but I have always been hoping for more. There are indeed good contributions, but we still need to do more. This will not be achieved without making the younger gene ration play a bigger role. The youth are the ones who are more connected to the out side community because of their upbringing here. Their connection with the surrounding community is very natural, unlike my generation who are still a bit hesitant.
Alhadi: What is the actual ro le that the Arab youth now play? Aboulela: Although I believe that th ey need to step up and lead, in truth, their role is minimal. Alhadi: Why do you think their role is minimal and what are the reasons? Aboulela: I think it is not inte ntional. I believe they should pl ay a bigger role in the mosque, more than what they do now. They should also pl ay a bigger role in th e institutes such as this one. They are the ones who have a better opportunity to connect with the community. However, I understand that there are political overtone s to everything and these are felt everywhere. This may be the reason behind which they keep their participation to a minimum. It may also be due to some strange political views that keep some people chained to their own setting, wh ich does not allow them to open up to the outside community. There is also a prevalent misunderstandi ng that religion is not broad enough and less inclusive than ot her political, intellectual and philosophical forces. This leads me to believe that for Arabs and Muslims to have a better image, there is an urgent need for true changes in the methods and ways of thinking that rela te to everything we do. Alhadi: My final question is about the people w ho do work in the institute and the clinic. Are they all volunteers, or do you have regular employees? Aboulela: They are all volunteers except for a secretary here at th e institute and another secretary, a nurse, and a nurse practitioner. Those are th e only regular employees we have. All other twenty-five doc tors are volunteers. They work in rotation. Those who serve in the internal medicine clinic co me on Monday and Wednesday, and Friday is reserved for the neurology clinic. Alhadi: Does that mean the clinic opens only three days a week?
Aboulela: True, but we have a nurse practitioner who comes to wo rk half a day every day from Monday to Friday. Alhadi: I am personally pleased, Dr. Ayman, to hear the details that you have just given us. I am very positive that when this interview is uploaded to the library website, people will get to know about the Arab community and its co ntributions and true ro le. It gives me a great honor that I contributed to bringing your voice and your contributions to the greater community. I am glad to have had this opportunity. Aboulela: Thank you. [END OF INTERVIEW]