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Not Your Everyday Volunteer

By Laura Fawaz, Contributing Reporter

drismailmehrHornell, New York–By the blessings of Allah (SWT), our American Muslim community has many members that we can be proud to represent the American Muslim identity. 

Dr. Ismail Mehr is one of those individuals. IMANA (the Islamic Medical Association of North America), which has been around since 1968; it is an organization mentioned often in reference to medical relief efforts and volunteerism.  Dr. Mehr is the chairman and president of this organization.  This is the same non-profit where many great professionals devote their time and resources, spending their own money to travel to aid those in need in places such as Haiti and the Philippines.

Dr. Mehr is an anesthesiologist by profession, but that wasn’t always his first choice.  Medicine in general wasn’t what he was interested in—becoming a pilot was his high school dream.  Then in his junior year, Dr. Mehr tore his ACL during a basketball game and had to have surgery.  Allah (swt) is the Best of Planners, because this surgery made him change his mind to become a surgeon instead. 

Growing up in upstate New York, Dr. Mehr completed his undergraduate degree from Syracuse University, then transferred to the University of Buffalo the following year to play for their football team.  Medical school, he felt, was calling his name, so after his sophomore year he went to the Dominican Republic for medical school.  Anesthesiology was his second choice, so when a spot didn’t open up in pursuit of becoming a surgeon, Dr. Mehr went to the University of Rochester in 2002 where he completed his degree in anesthesiology.  “Hindsight is 20/20 because it’s the best thing that ever happened,” said Dr. Mehr.  “Being an anesthesiologist goes back to why I wanted to be a pilot, the necessary stress management skills, and the amount of multitasking that a pilot has to do is the same as with an anesthesiologist,” Dr. Mehr continued.

“With anesthesiology there’s a common misconception that we just come into a room and put people to sleep,” Dr. Mehr added.

12 years later, he is the Chairman for the Department of Anesthesiology at St. James Mercy Health System in New York, and is taking advantage of any and every type of volunteerism and community activism he can.  “After I graduated and moved back to my hometown, the first thing I did was volunteer when I was asked by my formal football coach to be the assistant coach,” explained Dr. Mehr.

He has been coaching his high school alumni team for the last 12 years; he sat on the YMCA board in his town, he’s in and out of the country on relief missions, as well as coaches his kids sports teams, “It’s a small town and I’m very active in it, described Dr. Mehr. 

As a volunteer relief surgeon, Dr. Mehr has been in a few not-so-safe locations, such as Somalia.  Though he would never say that he felt endangered in any of them, he put it as feeling the “most concerned” in Modasuite, Africa.  This doctor took this relief trip on his own, and admits now that he probably should not have gone.  Another trip that affected him was Gaza in 2009.  Even though this was during wartime, the doctors and volunteers were not scared or worried, but were impacted by this situation.  “Every place we’ve gone has been an area hit by natural disasters.  But the problem here is very surreal, the violence is man-made, killing over wanting more land … They [the Palestinians] are prisoners in their own land,” illustrated Dr. Mehr.  

“Unfortunately in our community, volunteerism is not something that we rush to do.  We have to understand as Muslims that volunteerism is required of us, that is how our religion spreads,” said Dr. Mehr when he explained that 20% of IMAMA’s volunteers are non-Muslim.  He continued, “We’re not there to preach or do du’a, but these people just see us and want to learn more, so when we come back home they later ask for a copy of the Qur`an.”

Dr. Mehr is married to a pediatrician who is a fellow IMANA volunteer, and they are the parents of a son and a daughter.  “Volunteerism is a very important aspect of our deen (faith), not only in our Islamic community, but also in our cities.  I coach my kids’ sports teams because I prefer to be the one with them, it shows family support,” Dr. Mehr concluded.


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