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Local medical community mourns psychiatrist

Thursday, May 17, 2012
By Eva Salinas

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While Somali people around the world mourn a well-respected doctor this week, his death has shocked the mental health community in Owen Sound.

Dr. Abdishakur Jowhar, chief of psychiatry at Grey Bruce Health Services, was killed Sunday in a car crash in his native Somaliland, an autonomous region in northern Somalia. He was 59.

Dr. Jowhar had been working in Owen Sound the past two-and-a-half years and had quickly become loved and admired by many of his colleagues and patients. He was due back at work on June 4.

“The staff are in a state of shock at this point,” said Jeff Franks, co-director of mental health services for GBHS. “He was just incredibly engaging and compassionate about his work; always optimistic in a field that isn’t always optimistic.”

Staff are gathering in a private meeting today to mourn their colleague ? a round man who wore glasses, spoke with a soft accent and gave a warm hug.

“He lit up a room,” said Shannon Shaw, a ward clerk on psychiatry. “If you can imagine the sun, his face was like the sun, that smile, the arm around your shoulder. He was just like a gentle giant, a very lovely man. He was like nobody I ever met.”

The psychiatrist was born in the city of Borama in Somaliland, one of more than 20 children of a prominent local religious leader. He studied medicine in Egypt and later became a Canadian citizen, living in Edmonton and Toronto.

Through it all, Dr. Jowhar remained passionate about his homeland, where psychiatric care was minimal and often tied to religious or traditional healing practices. He returned regularly, setting up a mental health clinic in Hargeisa and was in the midst of building another in his hometown.

“This is a huge, huge loss for everyone the doctor touched. I would say even a greater loss for people back home in Somalia,” said Rashad Ali, a friend of Dr. Jowhar’s who lives in Toronto.

“Some of the people there were even saying, if they could only have the doctor back . . .” Ali said, his voice breaking with emotion. “I remember at a dinner before he left, someone said ‘You’ve got to be crazy to be leaving Canada.’ And he said, ‘No, no, no. If all of us say that, then there’s nobody left for these people.’ “

In an open letter to the Somali community, friend Jama Musse Jama said: “He left the comfort of the diaspora and a well-paid profession in the West to give his soul, his mind, and eventually his life to his people . . . We shall never forget him. But we will miss him deeply.”

The doctor was also a prolific essayist, writing often about the political situation in Somalia, which hasn’t seen a central government since 1991. In one essay, he wrote that Somaliland “can show the way to an alternative future for Somalis . . . A future that is based on peace not war, on citizens not tribes, on well-established colonial borders not the shifting sands of border disputes.”

Back in Canada, Dr. Jowhar was a tireless advocate for mental health, an issue that tied both of his worlds together.

“What I’m engaged in is not the treatment of one person but in assisting in a cultural evolution of the understanding of mental illness,” Dr. Jowhar said in an interview at his Owen Sound office last summer.

“He had a way of treating all people equally I think because of what his experience was in Africa he could be very genuine with that,” Franks said. An event to commemorate his life and work is expected to be held in Owen Sound in the near future, he added.

His Edmonton-based nephew, Kamal Nuur, said a funeral held earlier this week in Borama brought many from around the country. Family members around the world, including dozens in Canada, Europe, the Middle East and Australia, have connected since his death and are hoping to set up a foundation in his honour to continue his work on the new clinic.

“There are family members who I’ve never spoke with who are calling me from overseas . . . It’s just amazing,” he said.

Dr. Jowhar leaves behind his wife and two stepdaughters.

With files from Dylan Franks


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