Q: You pursued a public health education right after medical school. What prompted that move?
A: I was politically vocal as an undergraduate, which got me into trouble at universities in Lebanon and then in Iraq, actually getting me expelled from the university the second time. I found it hard not to question and challenge everything surrounding medicine and health and that was not always appreciated. At the advice of one of my mentors, I decided to cross the bridge from medicine to public health which was a much better fit for me because it allowed me to consider the broader determinants of health, the broader context. I chose occupational health as a focus.
Q: You did your master's and doctorate at Johns Hopkins but returned to Lebanon in 1991 when the country was emerging from the civil war. Was that an easy decision?
A: For me, yes although I was married with two little children. I enjoyed my time in the USA and could have continued there, but it was important for me to come back and be a part of my country's reconstruction and rehabilitation after 15 years of civil war. It was a shock though. The health and health-care system needs were enormous. I stuck to my specialization and remember people laughing at me when I gave my first talks about occupational health and safety. They had just come out of a war in which 150 000 people had been killed and I was talking about avoiding work injuries! So, there was a period of adjustment. But I found a home in AUB (the American University of Beirut) where I joined the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS). I was only 35 at the time but I was almost immediately appointed to senior advisory positions. It was a great opportunity, but sad also; the senior faculty members had all retired or left the country during the war. There were so few mentors and nobody with occupational health experience.
Q: Emerging from that difficult period FHS has come to be recognized as one of the leading public health institutes in the Eastern Mediterranean Region. How do you account for its success?
A: Well, first you need to remember that FHS dates back to 1954 and had built a reputation prior to and even during the civil war. But it's true we did have to build it again, not just getting FHS back on its feet, but defining our role and our relationships with government agencies, and other disciplines and institutions. From my perspective, the turning point for FHS was the appointment of Dr Huda Zurayk as dean in 1998. She was a highly acclaimed public health academic and a leading reproductive health researcher who successfully conducted community-based research about women in Egypt, working with a wide range of people...