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Who We Are: Dr. Neil Arya

“To improve health, you need to improve social conditions; I consider that to be a medical responsibility” – Dr. Neil Arya, author of Under-Served (2018) exploring health care and determinants in inner-city, Indigenous and immigrant populations

Kitchener-Waterloo Site, Assistant Clinical Professor

A local doctor with a global reach

When family doctor Neil Arya opened the first clinic for refugees in his community, he was following a long-standing principle in his life: ‘think global, act local.’

“For me, local health has always been interwoven with international health,” he says.

Opening in 2008 at the McMaster University Centre for Family Medicine in Kitchener, the clinic was launched as a health screening service, but it has grown into a full-service medical clinic providing comprehensive care to hundreds of newcomers.

Arya has written books on achieving peace through health, and points to peace processes that benefited from humanitarian ceasefires for medical interventions in El Salvador and Sudan and health systems integration in Mozambique and Angola.

The bridge

“I’ve come to see advocacy as a medical responsibility and health as a bridge to peace,” he adds. “You have to improve social conditions in order to improve health.”

His parents were already refugees from what is now Pakistan when they came to Canada from India in 1962. While raising their children in Wiarton, Ontario, they repeatedly stepped up for other migrants. He especially recalls refugees who came from Uganda in 1972, expelled by Idi Amin.

“Our family and the community helped those who came with nothing, but the return in terms of friendship and appreciation was incalculable,” he says.

New direction

Arya pursued a career in chemical engineering before medicine, but just before graduation from the University of Toronto, he happened to attend his sister’s medical school lecture on frostbite.

“I thought, ‘now this is fascinating.’”

Changing direction, family medicine became the foundation of his desire to serve a community.

While in medical school at Queens University, he did electives in India and Tanzania, completing his residency through the Jewish General Hospital and CLSC Côte-des-Neiges at McGill University in 1992.

He soon settled in Waterloo, near his parents, and began developing international academic, clinical and research relationships in Israel/Palestine, El Salvador, Guatemala, Ecuador, Peru, Tanzania, Kenya and India.

His wife is Carolyn Beukeboom, a nurse practitioner who divides her time among the refugee health clinic, a community health centre and international health projects. Her humanitarian work, “casts a long shadow over mine,” he says.

He is an assistant clinical professor of Family Medicine at McMaster University and adjunct professor at the University of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier University.

Written by: Elizabeth Meen

McMaster University Department of Family MedicineMichael G. DeGroote School of Medicine