When Saleh was just a young boy, he and his family lived in Paris while his father was toiling on his PhD. It was in Paris that he witnessed discrimination and racism, especially against Arabs. While he was more shielded, having had a broad education and spoke without a foreign accent, this was Saleh’s first peek into what life is like as an ‘other’, a ‘them.’
Understanding what it means to be vulnerable grew further when they moved back to Iraq and lived under sanctions for three years under Saddam Husseiin, before upping stakes for Malaysia and eventually Canada.
“That’s what I mean by being ‘them’,” says the man whose favourite meal is kuku na chips (Swahili for fried chicken and chips; similar to those served at Chicken on the Way). “There's a very fine line and a very small set of changes that happen in somebody's life. At some point, you fork off that road and you make a whole new reality for yourself. My parents did that for us.
My dad also gave me his logical brain which likes to break apart problems while showing empathy to all the pieces,” he explains, “and my mom, well she has instilled in me the importance and ability to listen and to not be blind to those who are most vulnerable.”
As for other heroes — Canadian physician Dr. James Orbinski who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999 on behalf of Doctors Without Borders is one such giant who, in a recent telephone conversation, reminded Saleh to “slow down and enjoy the people around you because nothing is more important and more formidable than the love for people you care about and your family.”
“And I said to James,” he laughs, “Really? YOU are telling me to slow down . . . but it’s amazing and humbling to have somebody like that as a role model and mentor.”
Always generously grateful is Saleh . . . always stepping aside, giving someone else the final word.