Guelph Undergrad Has Hope in the Fight Against AIDS

Abid Virani wants high school students to reach out too

Abid Virani -- Photo by Ross Davidson-Pilon

When Abid Virani visited Lesotho in 2009 to learn first-hand about HIV/AIDS in the southern African country, the Guelph student had expected to meet lots of people sick and dying from the disease. But he learned that much of the suffering took place behind closed doors.

The exception was Saturday, when trucks piled with coffins appeared on the streets. Says Virani: “Saturday funerals are part of the culture. The largest industry is the death industry.”

Now a third-year international development student, he’s preparing a return to Lesotho this summer. He’ll take along a dozen local teens involved in an 18-month-long humanitarian and educational experiment based at U of G. They’ll spend part of July and August in Africa getting a first-hand look at issues they’ve been studying on campus under the fledgling Reach Lesotho program. That program is the brainchild of Virani and his partners in a humanitarian organization called I Have Hope in The Fight Against AIDS.

As a partnership between I Have Hope and the Upper Grand District School Board, this program teaches local students about issues including HIV/AIDS in developing countries.

Natalie Sloof, a Grade 11 student at Centennial CVI, is among the local teens heading to Lesotho this year. “I hope I can go over there and learn and bring that back to Canada and share that with people,” says Sloof.

She’s one of 12 senior students from Centennial, Guelph CVI and John F. Ross Collegiate enrolled in a credit course called “Issues in Human Rights.” Since early 2010, the group has met weekly in U of G’s MacKinnon Building for the course, taught by Centennial teachers Joel Barr and Barry Bauman with help from U of G students and staff.

The teens have discussed such topics as the AIDS pandemic, human rights, development issues, and history and politics. They’ve created blogs and videos: www.reachlesotho.com/.

Before this course, says Sloof, problems like AIDS, poverty and war had remained beyond the horizon. “I had never heard of the Millennium Development Goals or what the United Nations does. Another powerful thing was the book 28: Stories of AIDS in Africa by Stephanie Nolen.”

Now she hopes to study science and become a teacher or pediatrician, perhaps working in developing countries. Referring to Reach Lesotho, the 17-year-old says, “This was a great opportunity to start this at a young age. Why should I wait until I have a university degree? These problems are here now.”

James Stephens, a fifth-year U of G student in natural resource management, mentors the high schoolers under the program along with wildlife biology student Grace Burke. Stephens has visited several countries through the Global Youth Network, but he wishes he’d had a chance to travel abroad earlier. “Everyone is connected. If you don’t start learning about that connectedness in high school, when do you learn about it?”

He says this summer’s planned trip will be an eye-opener for the high school students. “This is a really good way to do it. The earlier you start, and with the right guidance, you can start to evaluate the impacts you’re having on the communities you’re visiting.”

This fall, Stephens will join the board of directors for I Have Hope, where he’ll help develop school programs. Virani will run the group full-time and will continue his studies part-time.

Virani was still a Guelph high school student when he began planning the Reach Lesotho course with Barr, who teaches the community environmental leadership program at Centennial. High school students were chosen for their complementary skills, interests and personalities; 24 candidates attended leadership training before the final 12 were selected. Says Barr: “It’s a very diverse group.”

This summer, those teens will work with Lesotho students on projects including reforestation, community agriculture and teaching through art and music.

“There’s a debate in the humanitarian community about whether we should have students going to other countries to help. It’s often seen as voyeuristic tourism,” says Barr. “We wanted informed, enlightened students going there to work on this project.”

A two-time U of G history grad and a member of the I Have Hope board, Barr has run student projects to Cuba, Europe and other destinations.

This summer, a professional production team will accompany the group to Africa to complete a documentary film. Virani hopes to premiere that film and publish a book he’s writing for teens by World AIDS Day on December 1.

The team will also create a second documentary to be sent to schools across Canada. Virani hopes to see other high schools borrow the Reach Lesotho program or parts of it for their own curriculums.

Virani was a 17-year-old at Centennial when he and several classmates launched Student Reach International, a group intended to help other teens contribute to varied humanitarian efforts worldwide. This year, that organization narrowed its focus to HIV/AIDS under its new name, I Have Hope, and has applied for charitable status to help in fundraising and applying for grants.

Abid Virani with Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik -- Photo Courtesy Reach Lesotho

In 2009, Virani visited Lesotho with Dr. Anne-Marie Zajdlik, a local physician who led a $1-million Bracelet of Hope fundraising campaign for the Tsepong AIDS clinic there. He says tackling HIV/AIDS will also help to address other issues ─ economic, social, health, education ─ in developing countries.

That trip was his second view of Africa. After finishing high school, he became the first member of his family to visit Uganda since Idi Amin took power in a 1971 coup. Then teenagers, his parents fled Uganda with their families that year and eventually immigrated to Canada.

Virani’s father, Altaf, and his mother, Yasmin Alidina, met as students here at U of G. Altaf has worked on campus since finishing his studies in computer science and management economics in 1982; he is now assistant director of information technology in Hospitality Services. Their older son, Fy, studied criminal justice and policy here and is now at law school.

Referring to Abid’s humanitarian and leadership stripes, Altaf says, “He turned 21 when he was 11. I always thought he was beyond his years.

“Reach Lesotho was one thing he wanted to do to make an impact, not only individually but he wants to bring that level of education to the schooling level, he wants his peer group to understand they can do a lot.”

Yasmin studied languages at Guelph and worked for the Farm Radio Network on campus for a decade. She now runs hearing clinics in Guelph and Paris, Ont. “Abid always probed us to share our past with him,” she says. “We discussed the importance of our moral and ethical values. More importantly, Abid witnessed first-hand how we lived our lives. We understand that it is our moral obligation to share the wealth with those less fortunate.”

Last year, Abid was named one of Canada’s “Top 20 Under 20” by Youth in Motion for his humanitarian work. He spoke this semester at the Universities Fighting World Hunger summit on campus.