SDG Impact Icons: Izzeldin Abuelaish

“Measure your wealth by the change you make; by the impact you have in other’s lives.”

In partnership with Employment and Social Development Canada, each month, Startup Canada is celebrating and putting the spotlight on a leading Canadian social innovator driving change in one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Startup Canada was pleased to sit down with Izzeldin Abuelaish, Founder & President of Daughters for Life to learn about their impact on SDG 16—Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.  

Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish is a Palestinian Canadian physician and an internationally recognized human rights and peace activist. He is devoted to advancing health and education opportunities for women and girls in the Middle East through his academic research and his charitable organization The Daughters for Life Foundation.

Izzeldin was born and raised in Jabalia Refugee Camp in the Gaza Strip. He was the first Palestinian doctor to receive an appointment in Medicine at an Israeli hospital. His experience working as both an insider and outsider to conflict has led him to believe that doctors are particularly well-positioned to serve as peace-makers, based on the moral doctrine of their profession.

SC: What is Daughters for Life?

IA: Daughters for Life is a charity that I established in memory of my daughters, to send the positive message that in every bad thing, there is something good. It stems from the belief that  educating girls and young women is vital in enduring our world and in making our world a better, freer, more just world.

SC: How does your work advance SDG 16—Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions?

IA: I try to use my academic education and my teaching at the University of Toronto as a professor to inspire the students because I believe academic education should have a social, human, healthy, peaceful impact in this world.

My work is to encourage people to look around, to ask, to learn, to connect, and to contribute. Because when we speak about peace, what is peace? Peace is justice, peace is health, peace is freedom, peace is about dignity, and the responsibility of institutions to come together to work—not as you and I. We all need to have peace, because my peace, my justice, my freedom, my dignity is linked to your peace, to your dignity, freedom, and justice.

SC: It’s a collaborative process, it’s not individual.

IA: Yes—one individual can’t do everything. Each of us can do something, so it’s the responsibility of all of us to come together; men and women, children and elders, from all corners to work together to make the world a better one. It’s our world, and we need to protect it, we need to work together, and to collaborate with each other.

SC: What motivated you to build Daughters for Life?

IA: I would never have achieved what I achieved without the support of my mother, my wife, and my daughters. I believe that by focusing on educating women, they can make change toward achieving a stable, sustainable, healthy, peaceful, just world. 

Women don’t need to be empowered because they have the power; they have the potential. What’s missing is giving them the means; providing them with the right education and giving them the opportunities and the roles they deserve. Because we—as men and women—complement each other. We support each other. We are not competing with each other.

Daughters for Life was also founded in memory of my daughters who were killed in 2009 when an Israeli tank shelled my house. I want to use this tragedy for positive action, and to send a message that in every bad thing there is a glimpse of hope; there is something positive and transformative. So instead of feeling bad about what happened—which is very painful—asking, how can we transform it into positive energy?

SC: Wow, that’s unbelievable. What’s the impact you’ve had that you’re most proud of?

IA: It satisfies me because it gives me hope and also sends my daughters a message; that they are alive. It keeps them alive in a positive way through good deeds. In these young women we are supporting to be educated, I see my daughters. It’s not about biology, it’s about humanity. That’s the achievement. I see the dreams, the plans, and the hopes of my daughters fulfilled by these young women we support.

SC: What is the next mountain you are climbing and what is left undone?

IA: I would love one day to establish, in my daughters’ memory, a Daughters for Life International College for the education of girls and young women in any country, to be a stable institution, and to spread light and hope in this world.

SC: What has been your biggest learning along the way?

IA: I don’t think of tomorrow. I think of—now what can I do? I don’t like to say tomorrow. If I can do it now, do it now, because tomorrow is tomorrow. We need to plan to some extent for tomorrow, but we need to act today. We need to learn from the lessons of the past. The past is the past, we can’t change the past, but we can learn from it. We can learn from the mistakes, and how we can change.

Also, I’ve learned that there is hope in this world, in spite of the difficulties we are facing. People need to work together, to come together—not to be in despair and say, “I don’t care, I am far from risk.” No one is far from risk. We’re all in the same boat. We need to work together. We can all be impacted by the challenges the world is facing, either directly or indirectly.

SC: How has being impact-driven helped you persevere and thrive?

IA: To see what I do is changing even one person’s life—inspiring students by giving a speech, or giving a student an opportunity to smile, or anyone—I think this gives me the fulfillment that I’m doing something. Don’t underestimate these actions. Even a small act makes a huge difference. Small acts keep us moving forward—do more! The world is listening and the world is full of good people, but we need to motivate them, to energize them, to tell them—come together, join us!

SC: What advice do you have for Canadian entrepreneurs looking to advance the Sustainable Development Goals with their businesses?

IA: They need to collaborate and to focus on women and children. Focusing on their education, on giving them the means, the role, the engagement in shaping the future of our country. If women have more opportunities to engage and work in this regard, I think peace will be the end result. The peace that we’re thinking of, it’s not a means, it’s the end result of achieving justice, education, equality, and respect. 

Once we have all of this, peace will be the consequence of justice; a consequence of equality, of freedom for all. When we are free from fear, ignorance, arrogance, from greed—then peace will be the prevailing value that we’ll all enjoy. But it starts on an individual level. You need to see people as people; as equal; as human. If we want to change anything, it starts with a change internally, at the individual level.

SC: Where can people go to learn more about your journey and organization?

IA: They can learn more about the journey of organization through our website. This year, we will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the establishment of Daughters for Life.

SC: What is your big vision for Canada and the World over the next 20 years?

IA: I have been in Canada for 10 years. Canada is very social, very friendly. It’s a great country. If we keep the same momentum and protect the same values, we can be a role model for the world. 

Canada is multicultural; it’s very diverse. People here are from everywhere in the world, from every corner, every street, from every country; they come together and live together in harmony with respect, understanding, compassion, and empathy. Why can’t the rest of the world do this?

I think the new generation of Canadians will take a leadership role in our world.

SC: What do you think today’s entrepreneurs should be focused on for a better, brighter future?

IA: Try not to focus on the material world. Because of everyday needs and challenges, it’s easy to focus on—how much do I want to earn? How much money do I have? 

Money is a means to an end—it’s not the goal. Measure your wealth by the change you make; by the impact you have in other’s lives. At the end of the day, we want to be happy. We want to be proud and to have fulfillment through our achievements. Not just financial achievements, but the human achievements and the impact we have on other people’s lives.

Do you have a vision for a better world? Join the Startup Canada Social Impact Network to gain access to social enterprise programming online and on-the-ground.

Micah Rakoff Bellman
Micah Rakoff Bellman

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