From Almost Giving Up, to Giving Back

SS1Islam Heikal’s story is one of commitment, heart and aspiration. It’s also a story of overcoming challenges. Islam worked successfully in Egypt as a pharmacist after graduating in 2005, and then for six years at a pharmaceutical company in Saudi Arabia. In January 2014, he arrived in Calgary ready to recertify in his profession. To make things a bit easier, Islam had come alone. He knew the first year would be challenging. He wanted to get things in order before his wife, Basant, and their young daughter joined him.

A year after he arrived, Islam was on the verge of not being able to pay his rent and ending his dream of becoming a pharmacist in Canada. With a little help from IAF, he persevered. Now, he’s thriving. Next year he and a friend will open an independent pharmacy in Calgary.

Before he came to Canada, Islam was in an enviable position. A friend had immigrated to Canada one year before him, had enrolled in a pharmacist bridging program, and was on his way to attaining his license. Islam knew what he needed to do and where to get support to recertify. His friend encouraged Islam to follow in his footsteps.

Excited about the move; he saw coming to Canada as a natural evolution in his career. He says that in the Middle East pharmacists simply dispense medication. He wanted more. In Canada, pharmacists work with other health care professionals to manage patient care. For Islam, having a deeper impact on people’s health was important.

He completed the first recertification exam before arriving in Canada and as soon as he arrived enrolled in the Bredin Centre for Learning’s International Pharmacy Bridging Program. From February to December 2014, Islam studied and worked as an intern. By the end of the year, he had finished his pharmacy internship, had spent many hours studying, and was preparing for the second of four recertification exams.

That’s when Islam hit a roadblock. He knew it would take time and effort to recertify as a pharmacist. He had expected the language and cultural differences. But he wasn’t prepared for the high cost of living in Calgary. His savings were depleted. And he still had exams to pass.

Islam was working as a pharmacy assistant, but it only paid minimum wage. His wife and daughter had arrived and his wages now had to support three people. They had no more savings. Their financial situation was dire. He needed to study to achieve financial security, but he lacked the financial security to study. He was running out of options. Islam felt that he would either have to borrow money at a high interest rate or return to Egypt. Then a friend introduced him to IAF.

Islam says the timing was perfect. When his IAF loan was approved, he had just maxed out his bank account overdraft limit to pay rent. His loan gave him the financial breathing space he needed to worry less about money and to focus on passing his upcoming exams. Islam isn’t sure he would have finished working towards his license if he had not found IAF.

Islam, who arrived with such plans and promise and then struggled to the point of considering leaving Canada, recertified as a pharmacist in July 2015. He works part-time at Shoppers Drug Mart. Always planning for the future, he also works at two independent pharmacies to gain the experience he needs to achieve his dream of opening his own store.

Islam speaks with gratitude about IAF,

“You didn’t focus on how I would pay back the loan, but how you could help me. You invested in my success. I couldn’t be more thankful to the whole team. Everyone was very supportive and welcoming. I didn’t feel that I was getting charity. I needed a push and that’s what you were there for.”

Islam knows the struggle internationally trained pharmacists go through. Having gone through it himself, he wants to help others. He teaches at the Bredin Centre, at Bow Valley College, and with a friend who has created an exam preparation course.

He openly shares his experience with other internationally trained pharmacists. “If I make a small difference, it’s worth it. When I was doing my preparation exam, I got help from Bredin’s instructors. This is my way of repaying the help I got to [help] someone else going through the same experience. I tell my students, the only difference between us is that I came here before you. We are all pharmacists. You can do it,” he says.

Islam’s advice to them is, “Stay focused on your goals. You’ll have many challenges, but you’ll get there if you have a clear vision. I didn’t know about IAF, and then IAF appeared when I needed them the most. Focus on what you do, you’ll find people willing to provide you with advice and help.”

Currently, his wife is going through her pharmacy recertification process. The family also has a new addition, a baby boy. Islam continues to make a difference in his Calgary community. IAF is proud to have been part of Islam’s success.

Every year, IAF helps hundreds of immigrants by providing loans to help them pay for the licensing or training they need to work in their field in Canada. Now more than ever Canada’s newcomers need our help. Please consider a donation to IAF today.