Immigration and Pharmacy – Success Stories

Pharmacy practice is filled with amazing individuals.  We all know Pharmacists that stand out for various reasons. Lately there has been a climate of intolerance towards those that come to Canada or the U.S. from another country. This confuses me given the history of successful immigration not only in Canada but other countries as well. Pharmacy practice is no stranger to this and I have found it necessary to share the brief stories of just a few of the many immigrants to Canada that have and continue to contribute to the profession of Pharmacy.  My regrets are that I couldn’t include more people here and that their stories are so abbreviated in the interest of space.  These are the stories of just 3 such individuals to spotlight their paths of immigration and contribution to Pharmacy and to Canada.

KYRO

My first call was with Kyro Maseh, a Pharmacist from the Toronto area.  He came to Canada in August 1996 with his family from Egypt.  The main reason for their move was the growing religious discrimination they were seeing and decided it was time to leave.  He was 8 years old when they arrived.  His mom was a Pharmacist, which helped their acceptance into Canada.  At the time Canada was looking for Pharmacists from Egypt and his parents read that it was a good place to raise a family. His dad was a well-known and respected vetrinarian of livestock in their area but gave up that profession when they came here.  Kyro had very little English language and no alphabet skills when he came here but you would never know that now.  He now speaks French, English and Arabic.  His early days in Canada were modest by his standards today and back in Egypt.  Their furniture came from what they could scrounge up from the garbage and housing was not luxurious to say the least.  To add to the family’s stress, his mother was diagnosed with cancer after their arrival.

Kyro eventually returned to Cairo for his Pharmacy education.  At a metropolitan centre he wouldn’t experience the same discrimination as his family did in Asyute where he was born.  One day a mother came into the pharmacy and told Kyro that her son didn’t wake up that morning, he had overdosed.  She said to him that she wished someone had warned him. It was in The Beaches area of Toronto where there is a small community feel.  He began to feel at this moment that it was his calling to help educate others, particularly young people about addiction and prevention of addiction.  Mental health and addiction became an area of focus for Kyro from then on.  He feels that as pharmacists we are good at talking to people and we are knowledgeable in science.  Teaching then becomes an important and natural part of our job. His #EndTheCrisis campaign tries to focus on kids on awareness of addiction.  His warning in hesitancy of immigration points to the case of Raymond Schinazi, who was forced from Egypt, only to become instrumental in the development of antiviral medications we use in pharmacy today.  He says there is strength in diversity, something he is living proof of.

Christina

Tina Privado Azzopardi (Christina) grew up in a relatively poor setting with both of her parents, 3 brothers and 1 sister on the beautiful island of Cuyo in the Philippines.  It’s an area that is quite isolated transportation-wise from the urban areas of the Philippines and very much more laid back.  To see this tiny spit of land on a map verifies the isolation they lived in. She moved to the more metropolitan centre of Manila to pursue a degree in Pharmacy and graduated in 1997.   This would not have been possible without the scholarships she received and monetary help from an Aunt she moved in with during that time in Manila.  Her Aunt was a business owner and fairly well to do.  In return, Christina would help out with the bookstore business as was needed. Upon graduation, she was employed as a lab instructor at the private University she had attended and worked there for 5 years.  The pay was not high in this position.  

Pharmacy practice and overall healthcare in the Philippines is quite different than here in Canada.  She recalls the system as very sad and medications can be difficult to obtain with little structure to any healthcare system, little private insurance, and expensive prescriptions.  The Physician is rarely challenged on a prescription when it comes to switching to a generic or dealing with an interaction.  Physicians are held in high regard like they are here, but it is more of an authoritative role.  Collaborative care with a Pharmacist’s input is not common.  Brand name reps often visit the physicians and leave samples. This leads the physician to often write for the brand name of medications and there is no switching to generics unless it is written for.  Christina tells me it is still this way today back home.  It is not uncommon for antibiotic prescriptions to be filled for part of the total days supply due to the cost.  Being on a chronic medication can financially ruin a family that tries to pay for them.  

Christina eventually saw a benefit in working in Canada.  With the help of a broker that spearheaded the move for Zellers who was looking for pharmacists, she prepared herself for the transition, which included 3 qualifying exams.  She recalls this as an unsure time as scams were often present with such brokers.  At the time, the internet wasn’t as widely used as today and verification of such scams was more difficult.  Eventually, through friends of hers that knew the friends of the broker she was fairly satisfied this was above board and made the move with a group of 5 others; all academia and non-retail in background.  This particular group came from Centor Escolar University and from the University of the Philippines.  Unfortunately for Christina and her family her father passed away of cancer before her time to leave came.

She recalls her arrival in the GTA after 24 hours of travel when the 3 girls in the group opened the door to their new apartment and realized it was completely devoid of furniture.  It was a feeling of emptiness she recalls.  She recounted having the bed sheets she travelled with that night and they eventually got some furniture that was donated by other Philippino families living in the building.  It was in a building that had many other immigrants from the Philippines.  She lived in Barrie for three years where she worked and paid off her commitment to Zellers.  Making the switch from academia to retail in a corporate environment was tough but she was mentored during that time and felt comfortable becoming a store-owner after that.  She embraced the chance to become involved in the independent Pharmacy world.  She now owns a store on her own and partly owns three others.  She purchased a home, got married and has a 6 year old son in Tottenham, Ontario, about 70 km from Toronto.  Her mom stays with her for ¾ of the year and goes back to the Philippines for the remainder. Her commitment to the pharmacy profession is obvious but her 6-day weeks with 4 stores will hopefully become 4 day weeks to give her more family time eventually.

Johnny

Johnny Marya has no direct recollection of his birth country of Greece.  His parents were Christians living in Syria, a minority group in that country.  His father started work when he was 13 with Johnny’s grandfather in the jewelry business in Syria.  It was a family of 6 children and a life of productive work looked more favorable than school.  Early on they knew that North America offered more potential than they saw in Syria, including education for Johnny.  Before Johnny was born they moved to Greece where they lived for a short time around his birth.  His Father became a jeweler – making a fairly good living there.  They decided to begin the work to start the path to Canada and his father moved his wife and Johnny back to Syria while he went to the U.S. to begin the paperwork to have the family moved over here.  The year was 1989.   This is a process that lasted nearly three years.  During this time he didn’t see his father, who supported the family from the U.S., undoubtedly a long period for Johnny.  Finally, in 1992, when he was 2 ½ he moved to Montreal with his mom to be reunited with his dad.

Growing up in Canada offered Johnny and his family (which also now includes a sister) opportunities and education they would not have had back in Syria.  Johnny saw the value of education.  As an immigrant it was instilled in him to get an education first in order to be successful and to work hard to get what you need.  He went to work at small jobs at the same age his father did as a young boy.  His first job was at a grocery store, receiving orders and preparing fruits and vegetables for sale.  His next jobs included a Subway, a Theatre, a paper route, a duty free shop at the airport, snow removal, a forklift driver at a warehouse, a truck driver for a delivery company, and a clothing salesman for H&M. With his family they also started a tourist agency and a popcorn company, both of which they ended up selling.

As Johnny started his 4 year Bachelor’s degree in finance, he approached his father to rekindle the jewelry business that he had started to wind down.  Johnny developed a business plan and incorporated a proposal that included updated technology and smaller batch custom-made jewelry production with little to no overhead in inventory.  This was a busy time for him, working 40 hours per week while in university.  During this time he interned for a live broadcasting company that expanded and offered him a great job that he couldn’t refuse so he took that job and still offered to help his dad with the jewelry business.  He was 22 years old at this point.  He worked there for a year and turned to a recruiting agency to find a job in finance.  He was immediately offered a job with the recruiting company and within 2 years he was one of the top producers, mainly with pharmaceutical companies.  This is how he started to learn about drug companies, including McKesson.  His sister also became a Pharmacist.  After some extra legwork he convinced his future employers at McKesson that the recipe to a successful hire of a salesman isn’t in the salesman’s background in what they sold in the past (like automation), it’s in the ability of the individual to sell.  After all, Johnny spent a long time with the recruiting company coaching others in how to nail an interview.  Johnny has become Regional Sales Manager for Atlantic Canada and been doing that job for 3 years.  

Johnny’s extended family has also immigrated.  An uncle who was a physiotherapist back home, now works in Canada as a masseuse, another uncle is a successful physician in New York, and a cousin is with the Canadian Army.   Johnny’s story underscores the belief that immigrants often have a strong work ethic, come to Canada because they recognize the simple formula of education and hard work leading to success, and can be hired by companies that recognize this value and potential in this country.  While he not a Pharmacist, Johnny represents one of the many immigrants that have come to this country and contribute immensely to healthcare through their special expertise, not to mention the contribution of his family that also came to North America.  He has contributed to the success of many Pharmacies in this country.

The stories from immigrants were all equally interesting for differing reasons as I interviewed them for this blog.  I soon realized it was going to be difficult to tell their stories fully to and keep the blog’s length appropriate.  Immigration has proven to contribute to the success of Pharmacy in Canada.  Its benefits are seen both directly through immigrants who began here with a Pharmacy career and flourished, but also through the children of descendants that have come here from abroad.  Something I have learned through this exercise is how Pharmacy operates in other parts of the world.  From the examples I have heard, Canada is actually an excellent country to practice this profession, given the complaints we may have here in this country.  The respect given to Pharmacists and the value of pharmacy as a profession is strikingly higher here comparatively.  Thanks to all for their contributions in helping to promote the value of immigration through our profession.

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