The Gift of Giving: Exclusive Interview with Benevolent Dr Munawwar

There can be no greater gift than that of giving your time and energy to help others without expecting anything in return. One doctor spoke about making a difference in the life of his family and the community he is serving.

It may seem counter-intuitive to add volunteer obligations to your already mounting clinical and administrative work, but volunteering definitely has its own attraction. Studies have shown that doctors who regularly give away their time to charitable causes benefit from improved mental health and reduced physician burnout. Doctors can become disconnected and lose a sense of meaning in their work, but branching out of the work environment can make doctors feel more fulfilled and recharged. 

Can doctors – notorious for being overworked – craft time in their busy schedules to volunteer? Medic Footprints Malaysia had the opportunity to hear firsthand from Dr Ahmad Munawwar Helmi Salim about what it is like to give back to the community through volunteering work.

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dr munawwar

When Dr Munawwar is not practising sports medicine, he puts on his cape and finds a worthwhile cause to support. This doting father of two is the co-founder of Islamic Medical Association of Malaysia’s Response and Relief Team (IMARET). He has spear-headed many humanitarian aid operations, from flood-relief missions to outreach programs for refugees and orang asli in Malaysia. Dr Munawwar currently assists our frontliners  in mass community screening for COVID-19 while raising funds to provide medical supplies to hospitals. In addition, he and fellow alumni from Malay College Kuala Kangsar have been involved in establishing Sekolah Atas Air Hanoverian to provide education for the marginalised children in the shores of Semporna, Sabah. Dr Munawwar is also active with Projek Tongkat, an initiative to create awareness about amputee football in Malaysia.

Dr Munawwar’s outstanding effort has received recognition from his alma mater, University of Calgary. He was made a recipient of the Community Commitment Award 2020 for his inspiring contribution to the community.

Please tell us what first motivated you to be involved with charitable causes?

Growing up in a philanthropic family, I am no stranger to acts of altruism. My parents were heavily involved in volunteering work when I was a child. As young adults, my friends and I used to organise events such as futsal tournaments to raise funds for orphanages and welfare homes. After completing my housemanship in 2013, I moved to Kemaman, Terengganu and felt really strongly about advocating for the flood victims there. Together with my colleagues, we distributed basic items including food and mattresses. We also set up a mobile clinic to help the flood evacuees. This experience left a deep impression on me. I felt compelled to organise a non-profit team with other dedicated medical officers. Focusing on medical relief efforts during disasters, IMARET was officially launched in 2014 and is still going strong now.  

What is your most memorable volunteering project?

Back in 2014, I joined a medical relief mission in the East Coast, and encountered one of the worst floods in our country’s history. I witnessed houses completely submerged by floodwaters, cut off from communication. I really sympathised with the affected communities who have lost almost everything. During a haze relief effort in 2017, my colleagues and I distributed N95 masks to garbage collectors as early as four in the morning. It was only a simple act, but the appreciation shown by those workers really made me feel grateful about my life. Another experience I will definitely never forget is when I led IMARET’s humanitarian mission to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh in 2018. Besides running outpatient clinics, we installed water treatment systems (SafeWhere) at the refugee camps there, a simple necessity that we sometimes take for granted in life.

What skills have you picked up through volunteering?

Our funds mostly come through the donation by the generous public and corporate sector. We have managed to keep operating costs low by having kind volunteers working with us. Coming from a medical background, I was not formally trained in financial management. This is one of the skills that I have developed through my involvement in multiple charity organisations. This opportunity has also expanded my networking capacity. I learned about the power of social media initiatives.  I have also grown more mature, more refined at leadership and delegation skills. 

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How has your experience changed you personally and professionally?

What started as a passion has evolved into a social obligation for me. I think of this as a God-given duty that I must carry out – “If not us, then who else?” I’ve met many people from all walks of life, co-ordinating with corporate funders, VIPs – the who’s who in society. Nonetheless, I feel more at ease spending time with lay people out in the field. Professionally, as a doctor, being involved in charity work takes me out of the four walls of the hospital. There are so many people needing help out there. It changes my perspective as a health professional, becoming more holistic in my approach. Now I don’t only look at a patient for his/her diagnosis. I pay attention to their home condition, mobility and emotion too.

What were some of the major challenges you have gone through?

I see challenges not as hurdles, but instead as motivation to work even harder. The greater the challenges, the more effort I have to put in. I am trying to help others so I trust that God will always help me. I have to sacrifice leisure time with my own family but I am blessed with an understanding wife beside me and encouraging children who keep my spirits up. They are immensely supportive of my passion. I always remind my children about the values of patience and gratitude; I hope I can inspire them to give back to society in the future. 

Dr Munawwar and wife appeared on national TV wherein they talked about their sacrifices and support for each other

Would you encourage more doctors to come on board and start volunteering despite their busy schedule?

Definitely! Giving to the causes you are passionate about not only benefits the charities themselves, it can be deeply rewarding for you too. I urge young doctors to use their time, health and sustenance for helping others less fortunate. But do keep the intentions pure. Volunteering is a cool thing to do these days, but do it because you care, instead of to show off or to reap the benefits. You will always be busy with work, but find and make time to help others around you too. 

For doctors who wish to spend quality time with their family, volunteering together could also be an option. Introducing the concept of giving back to young children allows them to learn the importance of helping others. It can also nurture valuable social skills. They may not understand the word “volunteer” but they know the value of compassion.

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IMARET presently focuses its effort in COVID Assessment Centres (CAC), sending volunteers for monitoring of COVID-19 patients and mass testing as well as deploying mobile vaccination teams to marginalised communities.  If you fancy volunteering, check out this page for more info on how to contribute. 

Happy Father’s Day!

With Father’s Day right around the corner, we would like to honour and thank all Superdads and courageous father figures out there. You have sacrificed your time, energy and comfort not only for the smiles of your own families, but also for the sake of our society. Handling stressful jobs and being a responsible provider for the home is not for the faint of heart. Father’s Day is often downplayed and sometimes even goes unnoticed, but if you are a dad reading this, we want you to know that you certainly deserve our appreciation and respect!

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Aishah Ibrahim

Aishah is a trained medic who consistently tries to fly under the radar but keeps on seeking more feats to be responsible for. Working the room is the last thing she would do, so when aspirations collide with her personality, she reverse-engineers her way through. Currently living in Ho Chi Minh City, Aishah loves spending time with her two boys and gets worked up when discussing children’s rights and gender equality.

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