‘A few’ (or rather, many) good people in Lebanon

Her home country is reeling from one crisis after the other. After earning her master’s degree at the UM School of Health Professions Education (SHE), Zakia Dimassi is now back in Beirut, Lebanon, where she is an assistant professor at Saint George Hospital University Medical Center. There, she hopes to put her knowledge to good use, contributing to better healthcare and education. “I want to get across that there are a few good people here—as in the film A Few Good Men—who are struggling to make ends meet and keep the country from being devoured by the corrupt.” 

Unfortunate events are nothing new to Lebanon, but 2020 was an all-time low. The country suffered an economic meltdown, the value of the Lebanese pound nosedived, and in August the port of Beirut was rocked by a major explosion that killed hundreds, injured thousands and left hundreds of thousands homeless. “Some of us are more privileged than others, but we’re all just getting by day by day,” Dimassi says. “We avoid making long-term plans. We’ve cut down on expenses because the cost of living has tripled. And we rely on personal support from our community, family and friends. Thankfully, Lebanon still has a good social fabric. Some people have close relatives living abroad, who transfer money to their families here to help sustain them. Personally, I’m considering leaving to continue my career abroad. I want to be able to provide for my parents, who are getting older, and for whom leaving Lebanon, where they’ve lived their entire lives, is virtually impossible.”

Margot Krijnen (text), Zakia Dimassi (photography)

Seeds of change

The people of Lebanon stood up to the government over its dismal performance and corruption—to no avail. “We resorted to social and political activism, protesting in the streets, but in a system that is corrupt through and through, it takes a long time to induce change. Intellectually, people have started to look at things differently. You can sense the seeds of change beginning to take root. But true change will only happen a few generations down the line.” After the blast, the international community was supportive: “We received so many donations and even manpower to help us recover from the tragedy. Nobody here, even the international community, trusts the government anymore. They rely on local or international NGOs to make sure that donations end up in the right place.” Dimassi also calls for international support for academics, who are working under difficult circumstances, barely able to publish: “Keep them involved. Academic leaders should reach out to graduates around the world where resources are meagre and academic opportunities scarcer.”

Enriching time at UM

Dimassi does not regret coming to Maastricht for her master’s degree. On the contrary, “It was the best experience of my life on many levels. We got the opportunity to interact with teachers and classmates from all over the world. SHE is special in terms of how knowledge is delivered and who delivers it. You can have the best programme in the world, but if the teachers are not up to the challenge, you achieve nothing. Our teachers were always keen on getting our feedback, always there to listen.” Her advice to current students at SHE: “When you go back home, don’t be dismayed if you can’t immediately apply everything you learned. I know you can’t wait to implement it all and make your country the best in the world. But change doesn’t happen in big steps. Take the culture into account and tailor your ideas to it.”


Gurus in health professions education

Dimassi’s choice for UM was based on the advice of a professor from the US at the American University of Beirut. “I was building my career in medicine, had already graduated as a paediatrician, and everyone thought I would become a clinician. But I became fascinated by health professions education.” She still has strong connections with teachers and classmates from Maastricht. “They give you an open line to contact them if you have questions and are always willing to support your research projects. Whenever I’m at a conference, people know my former professors, who are genuine gurus in medical education, having developed well-known frameworks in medical education. All SHE students have the privilege of being influenced by these academics, who are making a worldwide contribution to the field.” 

Good citizens everywhere

“If I do manage to find good opportunities abroad, I would want to return home, maybe in ten years or so, and be part of a constructive change in medical education across the country and the region. I call on the international community to open their arms to Lebanese people who seek chances abroad. A lot of us want to stay here and make this country a better place. We want to invest what we know in improving the various disciplines and build a better future for younger generations, but the circumstances are not in our favour. So I really hope the international community looks at the good people, good citizens, who are genuinely passionate about their country. If they don’t stay here—which is unfortunate—maybe they can be good citizens somewhere else.”

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