Bridging the Gaps

‘Bridging the Gaps’

An Interview with Ph.D student Hana Al-Bannay

By Trina Moran

When it comes to improving the lives of fellow community members, the story of Hana Al-Bannay outshines the rest. Hailing from Qatif, Saudi Arabia, Hana is pursuing her Ph.D in rehabilitation sciences at the University of British Columbia. Her dissertation focuses on improving the health of Saudi Arabian Muslim women through education related to lifestyle conditions with special reference to type 2 diabetes mellitus.

Hana began her academic career at King Saud University in Saudi Arabia’s capital city, Riyadh, and finished her first degree with a Bachelor of Arts, majoring in English Language. Shortly after finishing her English degree, Hana worked at a military based hospital as an interpreter. It is here that Hana became interested in the medical field. In addition, working with a large number of international employees inspired her to study abroad, leading her to Canada.

In 2003 Hana completed a BA in Sociology at the University of Victoria and went on to pursue a master’s thesis at Royal Rhodes University focusing on the B.C. Arab community experiences with the Canadian health system. Aiming to finish her doctoral thesis by 2013, Hana hopes that the impact of her research at UBC will aid in designing health education programs suitable for the lifestyle of Muslim women in Saudi Arabia, empowering Saudi and Muslim women to pursue healthy living, and decreasing the prevalence of lifestyle conditions including type 2 diabetes mellitus in Saudi Arabia.

A recent medical study notes that since the late 1980s there has been an increasing trend among adult Saudis of developing type 2 diabetes mellitus, the rate being one in five. Other studies have concluded that a rise in obesity, hypertension, and coronary artery disease are the most common ailments of the region. Hana believes that a more structured and readily available health educational system would be beneficial to the people of Saudi Arabia in promoting healthy living, especially among women.

Upon arriving to Canada eight years ago, Hana recalls the culture shock while settling into Canada. Up until then Hana had lived in Saudi Arabia within a Muslim culture and a right-winged Islamic government. Hana described to me living in a place where politics were involved in every aspects of daily life, to the point that it directly affected an individual’s lifestyles. She depicted a ‘moral police’ force in Riyadh which would enforce Muslim customs, going as far as inquiring who a woman’s male guardian was and where he was if she was waiting for a taxi. Overall, upon living in Canada Hana feels much more at ease in living in a society that is less patriarchal and male dominated. She finds it liberating being allowed to think the way she wants to, knowing that the general population is not entirely consumed by politics. Learning about her rights as a woman in Canada has given her a new perspective on other women in the world who are marginalized. This is what has given her doctoral thesis a focus on improving the health and lifestyle of Saudi Arabian women.

A sense of community is another one of Hana’s values. Hana defines community as ‘a group of people who share a common interest in a specific belief’. When asked which community she felt she belonged to, Hana explained that she did not feel that there was a community in Vancouver that fulfilled all of her needs. Hana feels that because of Vancouver’s multi-culturalism there are so many communities and that they do not appear to connect with one another. Hana also notes that she is ‘open to all differences’ but is not sure if all the communities that she feels she has common ground with are open to that. Being an individual coming from a culture where there is only one ‘community’ and the beliefs and interests are concrete, Hana felt that it has been difficult for her to gain a sense of community being part of a small minority in the Vancouver’s vast multi-cultural setting. Comparing Vancouver to her hometown of Qatif, Hana noted that the immigration policies are not the same. Therefore, it is rare to see an international ‘community’ in Qatif. Overall, Hana is enjoying being surrounded by the vast array of culture and diversity that Vancouver has to offer.

Hana finds inspiration from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof for his scholarly merit and passion in giving a voice to the voiceless around the world and improving the life of people in developing countries. Also, Fatima Aazahra whom she describes to be very peaceful, never violent, and very balanced while being the perfect wife, mother, and humanitarian.

Upon completion of her Ph.D from UBC, Hana hopes to use her expertise of culture in a variety of directions such as: being an educator to the Muslim community focusing on bridging the gaps between knowledge and reality (health sciences), working as an intercultural educator, translating health education programs to other cultures, and continuing medical research within her fields of interest. As an outsider to Canada’s health care system, Hana feels that Canada needs to focus on the local health to address social stigmas and create awareness, especially in the smaller isolated parts of Canada. She feels that with the constant advancement of technology today ‘we all live in the same village now’ and that there should be more effort in using technology to improve the health and lives of everyone in a community. Hana feels that ‘one person cannot change the whole world, but if we all change a small part of the world the world can change’.

Hana Al-Bannay is currently a board member of the Access UVic chapter at UBC, as well as a research assistant and teaching assistant at the UBC Faculty of Medicine.

Link to the medical study mentioned in this article: