May 15, 2019

Passionate health sciences student shortlisted for RBC's Canadian Immigrant Awards

Ruth Legese recognized for her work to improve lives in Canada and Ethiopia; deadline May 16 to cast your vote

Third-year University of Calgary student Ruth Legese has been honoured as a finalist for the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards — which recognize inspirational immigrants who have made a positive impact on their communities since arriving in Canada. 

At the age of three, Legese fled from the devastation of the Ethiopian-Eritrean war. She spent her early childhood with her mother and sister in an overcrowded refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya — separated from her father, who was held back in Ethiopia. The pain of spending years apart from her father was compounded by a lack of quality health care; her mother’s thyroid cancer was misdiagnosed as heart disease and Legese’s undiagnosed asthma and the poor air quality of the region prevented her from attending school.

Legese, her sister and mother arrived in Canada as refugees in 2004 when she was six years old. Her father joined them two years later.

Passion for health care takes root

The hardships of Legese’s childhood sparked her passion for health sciences and community service.

With few physicians available, many in Ethiopia suffer with misdiagnosed and untreated conditions. Legese is working to help reduce the frequency of these misdiagnoses. She has returned to Ethiopia six times for both field research and volunteer work.

During her 2017 trip, she served as a translator between international physicians and local patients for seven weeks in the only public cardiac centre in Ethiopia. This volunteer work was particularly important to Legese as this was the same hospital that had misdiagnosed her mother 15 years ago.

Since enrolling at the University of Calgary, Legese has also joined the Pillai Lab at the Cumming School of Medicine, which gave her the opportunity to return to Ethiopia to conduct field work studying malaria diagnostics last year. Upon her return, she has continued to conduct malaria research, taking on an independent studies course in this lab.

Focus on malaria research

“My mother had malaria when she was pregnant with me, then I also contracted malaria while living in a Kenyan refugee camp,” says Legese. “In the Pillai Lab, we look at detecting and treating malaria in young children and pregnant women in particular.”

A member of UCalgary’s Scholars Academy, an innovative program that supports and challenges high-achieving students, Legese demonstrates both academic excellence and a passion for building community. She is the president and co-founder of the Eritrean and Ethiopian Students Association (EESA), which provides unique support for Ethiopian and Eritrean students in Calgary. Whether students are new to Canada or simply new to the university, EESA offers them academic, professional and social support, connecting them to resources and other students on campus.

This past year, Legese also undertook a Calgary-wide anti-bullying initiative aimed at better integrating immigrant and refugee students with their communities. Through interactive presentations, this initiative aims to dispel many misconceptions about immigration and settlement — with the goal of reducing some of the barriers immigrants face.

Inspired by a remarkable mother

Legese’s biggest motivator is her mother. “My mother is the strongest woman I know,” she says. “Battling cancer, she was the one that fled Ethiopia on foot to Kenya with my sister and I. She worked odd jobs in Kenya to make ends meet and, in Canada, she worked nights while attending Bow Valley College to learn English until my father could be sponsored to come to Canada. The few spare moments she had were spent tutoring my sister and I in math and sciences.

“She now raises foster children, having cared for over 30 children in the past seven years. She also cooks and delivers meals to me so I can focus on school. She never complains or makes excuses. She is my biggest supporter and role model in terms of being a humanitarian and working to attain my goals. Having her in my life, I am motivated by the desire to make both of my parents’ sacrifices worthwhile and take hold of all the opportunities I have here in Canada.”

Voting open until May 16

Voting for the RBC Top 25 Canadian Immigrant Awards is open through to May 16. Winners receive $500 toward a charity of their choice, and Legese has selected the Calgary Women’s Emergency Shelter. “My mother, sister and I lived there when we first came to Calgary,” says Legese. “Their support was key in our ability to make ends meet and begin our life here. Having experienced their work first-hand, I want to find a way to give back to them.”

Anyone who lives in Canada is eligible to cast their vote online. The winners will be announced at the end of June.

Dylan Pillai is an associate professor in the departments of Pathology and Laboratory MedicineMedicine, and Microbiology, Immunology and Infectious Diseases and member of the Snyder Institute for Chronic Diseases at the CSM.