Nahlah Ayed Prize winners know why they are here: to make the world better
If you ever have the opportunity to speak with Maryam Al-Azazi or Obasesam Okoi, do. In less than five minutes they will make you want to improve the world in some way.
They are this year’s recipients of the Nahlah Ayed prize.
“I started to cry when I heard I won,” Al-Azazi says. “It’s just like when you do a lot of things because you are passionate about them but then you get this pat on the back, this feeling of being acknowledged.”
Okoi, known as “Sam” to his friends, echoed these sentiments: “I was very excited because it is an acknowledgement of the little things I have done. You know, sometimes you don’t know the impact of what you’re doing. But if people who are watching you can attest to your effort to make a little difference in the lives of others, it feels really good. So when I received the email I said, ‘wait a minute, what’s going on!’ I had to read it again. I’m grateful. I’m really grateful.”
Each year, two students who demonstrate exceptional commitment and leadership skills, and whose actions are helping to bridge the local and the global, are awarded the Nahlah Ayed Prize for Student Leadership & Global Citizenship.
Nahlah Ayed, a CBC foreign correspondent, alumna and honorary degree recipient, supports this annual prize. It encourages students to participate in horizon-expanding activities that celebrate diversity, curiosity, respect and mutual understanding.
Maryam Al-Azazi is from Yemen and Ethiopia and is in her final year of Respiratory Therapy. She arrived in Canada by herself when she was 18 to pursue post-secondary education, and quickly she got involved in the community. She has worked or volunteers with a variety of NGOs in Winnipeg, helping Syrian refugees and advocating for marginalized groups.
Obasesam Okoi, a PhD candidate in Peace and Conflict Studies, is originally from Nigeria and he describes himself as a “disruptive thinker.” He is the author of the inspirational book The Spirit of Change, and convenes innovative youth programs where he trains young people to become leaders.
In their own words
UM Today: Why do you do what you do? What drives you?
Obasesam Okoi (OO): What drives me is the realization that my life, as a human being, is not about myself. It’s about what I make happen for others. So the essence of living is not to just live, but to live for others. I grew up with this consciousness and everything I do I try to ask myself, ‘How can I make life better for other people? What can I do to put a smile on somebody’s face?’
So I am driven by the realization that my life is a gift to humanity and I must constantly give whatever it takes me to give. I have to do it to make life better for other people. To inspire somebody to take action that inspires positive changes in society, that gives hope to other people. That is my inspiration.
Maryam Al-Azazi (MA): I came from a culture that is very patriarchal and very, how can I say this? It’s just a place where I never had a voice. You’re celebrated if you’re quiet. So every day since I landed in this country I am grateful for where I am so I always want to take every opportunity to give back and give a purpose for my existence.
And I have that firsthand experience of facing those challenges that come with being a newcomer in a new place. So, you know when you face something and you don’t want anyone to face it again? That’s how I feel. So if I can help any person, even in small ways, if it’s a situation or by sharing information, it makes me feel that gratitude that I helped someone in any situation they are in.
… I want to be a role model for all the newcomers, giving them hope. I’m a newcomer Canadian who believes that you can be whoever you want to be, it’s just going to take some hard work.
UM Today: Senator Murray Sinclair asked Canadians to reflect on four questions. One of them is “Where are you going?” How would you respond?
MA: In a couple of months I will graduate as a respiratory therapist so I will be a health care professional making a difference in my clients’ life, and I also want to continue my community work because I do love that. It’s not volunteer, it’s more of a hobby. I want to continue to find a middle ground for both and continue to provide culturally competent care to anyone. I just want to work hard to be an agent of change. That is my goal.
OO: My purpose on Earth, as I have discovered, is to help people discover why they are born. It’s to raise leaders and transform them into champions of change. Helping people discover their gifts, talents and abilities – to discover why God has sent them to this Earth and what they are born with. How can they better deploy their potential to be a blessing to others?…
In terms of where I’m going, I believe that since I discovered why I am born it is easier for me to know where I’m going. I know exactly where I am going. I want to create programs and platforms where people can discover and spread their gifts. I want to create platforms where people can raise questions on their role in society, on their role in the destiny of their nation, their role in the destiny of their community….
I try to challenge people to see a vision of themselves. So they see that they are not a victim, but that they can lead. That is where I am going.