Toronto medical student who fled war pays it forward giving Syrian refugees gift of sight

A Toronto medical student is bringing his vision of helping Syrian newcomers to life with a series of free eyecare clinics, including one Sunday in Brampton.

'When I see these newcomers in Canada... they remind me of my own personal experiences,' former refugee says

In 1994, Tarek Bin Yameen and his family found themselves internally displaced refugees when the civil work broke out in Yemen. Today he's giving back by with a series of free vision clinics for Syrian refugees whose experience he says he can relate to firsthand. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

When Tarek Bin Yameen looks into the eyes of young Syrian refugees, he sees himself.

Today he's a second-year medical student at the University of Toronto, but he wasn't always so lucky.

Bin Yameen spent the first half of his life in Yemen. When a civil war broke out there in 1994, his family suddenly found themselves internally displaced, trading the risks of being bombed for the risks of a refugee camp.

The conditions were dismal. Within a span of week, a cholera outbreak killed 40 people. Few received the necessary vaccines.

Bin Yameen made it out alive.

So when he met six-year-old Hannan, whose family arrived in Canada as refugees from Syria, he knew he had to help.

'Money we didn't have'

He met the little girl while assisting her privately sponsored family, and soon realized she was suffering from a condition called strabismus. Untreated, Hannan could eventually go blind.

"When I thought about that little young girl, I began wondering how many children here have eye conditions that are undiagnosed?"

"Even though they had federal health coverage, they never accessed eye care treatment," Bin Yameen told CBC Toronto, adding that language and transportation barriers put eye care out of reach for the family.

The Abdo family spent four years in Turkey after fleeing Aleppo. The family of seven at one point was homeless in Turkey where medical care was so expensive it was virtually out of reach. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

That was the case for Gullistan Abdo and her family when they fled Syria for Turkey, then Canada.

"We could access [medical care], but we had to pay money which we didn't have," she told CBC Toronto, speaking in Arabic through a translator.

Stories like Abdo's inspired Bin Yameen to offer free vision clinics to Syrian refugees, and this summer, launched a pilot together with St. Michael's Hospital and non-profit group Mes Amis. Some clinics were held at Prism Eye Institute in Brampton, which donated clinical space and medical equipment.

Equipped with translators and specialists, the clinics provide families with an initial eye exam. If the refugees need glasses or a specialist appointments, they get them on the spot.

'Survival mode kicks in'

The demand was overwhelming. A hundred and eighty refugees turned out for eye exams.

So they held another, and another. The program has already treated nearly 500 refugees, Bin Yameen says.

Equipped with translators and specialists, the clinics provide families with an initial eye exam and if they need glasses or a specialist appointments, they get them on the spot. (Laura DaSilva/CBC)

"The Arabic is always a difficult thing for people to find. They can go to the clinics by themselves but they can't always articulate, you know, what their issues are. So having the translators here has been a really big plus," Mes Amis executive director Julie Mahfouz told CBC Toronto.

Like Bin Yameen, Hannan's family was lucky. They were quickly connected with a specialist in the U.S., and she'll soon undergo an operation. But as Bin Yameen knows all too well, not everyone shares that good fortune.

"I can relate to that because when you are in that condition, just survival mode kicks in. You just want to get a roof over your head, you want to get some food, you want to get some clothes," he told CBC Radio's Fresh Air. "Going to see a doctor is not your major concern."

'Paying it forward'

Three more eye clinics are scheduled to roll out in the coming months, reaching as far as the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

As he worked to examine patients today, Bin Yameen's mind travelled back to the camps where he found himself all those years ago.

"When I see these newcomers in Canada, when I see the children, they remind me of  my own personal experiences that I had as a kid."

"This country gave me an opportunity to come here and study here and I'm paying it forward," said Bin Yameen.

He hopes the children he's helping can eventually do the same.

With files from Laura DaSilva