Abier el-Barbary
Abier el-Barbary

From Egypt to Canada: Abier el-Barbary joins MGH’s inter-faith spiritual care team

Ellen Samek

For Abier el-Barbary every day has its little miracles. As a part of the spiritual care team, she witnesses them every time she's out in the hospital, whether it's in the maternal newborn unit or in the intensive care unit.

“Miracles happen every day, but we don't recognize them as such. We just think that they're normal processes we go through,” says Abier, who started working at Michael Garron Hospital (MGH) this spring.

Abier is the first Muslim woman to hold a position on the Spiritual Care team.

Spiritual Care at MGH offers interfaith spiritual support and counselling to patients, families and staff across the hospital. Offering both holistic and compassionate care that keeps diversity in mind is a key priority for the team. Spiritual care is one of many service areas MGH is evolving to create more inclusive environments for the East Toronto community.

Abier was also the first Muslim woman to graduate from the Masters of Pastoral Studies at the University of Toronto. The program first allowed Muslims to apply in 2012. For Abier, it's a big deal.

“There is a lot of overlap between the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). We have a lot of commonalities in how we make sense of this world and the next world,” she says. “I think more integration of Muslims beliefs and traditions in pastoral studies is a great thing. We can learn a lot from each other.”

Before Abier entered the field of pastoral care, she was a psychological researcher, educator and counselor. She spent ten years teaching psychology and practicing in Egypt at the American University in Cairo.

While she lived in Cairo, Abier spent many early mornings before work watching the sunrise as she rowed down the Nile River. She was a part of the university's women's rowing team.

“To me being on the Nile, while the sun is rising, it would always make my day,” Abier says. “Those memories are a reminder of the most beautiful time of the day when the whole world seems to stir and begin to wake up.”

It was in Egypt that Abier realized that she wanted to be more than just a secular counselor.

“I really started to have questions when I counselled more Muslims while working in the Middle East. They always asked me what God would want them to do in a situation,” says Abier. “My training in counselling hadn't prepared me to answer those kinds of questions.”

“I was also interested in helping people who were experiencing trauma and profound loss in their lives. This naturally led me to pastoral counselling where you're placed in hospitals or prisons, places where people truly are struggling to wake up the next day and keep going.”

For Abier, the most rewarding part of working in pastoral care is seeing the resilience of the patients she works with.

“It's rewarding every time I see someone spiritually transform because they realize that there is hope. Sometimes it takes a tragedy that shakes our world to think about the why and how of being connected to a higher power,” she says. “To find transformation in the worst of tragedies, that is miraculous to me and an honor to be able to witness.”

Abier recalls a man she worked with once who experienced the loss of both his legs, one after the other during an extended hospital stay. Abier still remembers the bravery he showed despite what he was experiencing. To maintain his sense of self during his tragedy, He wrote a book while undergoing his experiences, including pictures of himself before and after his procedures.

“I remember his wife told me that he had been a teacher all his life and he wasn't ready to stop teaching. That this was his hardest lesson but still a lesson.”

“Even when you are going through something so traumatic, people still find the strength to be a motivator and role model to others who are struggling.”

The holy month of Ramadan is coming to end this weekend.

For Muslims across the world, this is the end of the holiest time of the year.

For 30 days, Muslims mark the revelation of their holy book, the Quran, by fasting from sunrise to sunset. Fasting means no eating or drinking during daylight hours. There is also a greater focus on participating in charitable works and prayer.

“Ramadan is special to me because of how close it brings me to God,” she says. “Even though I'm physically low on energy from less sleep and hungry, there is a spiritual high in knowing that it is the month when the Quran with its amazing linguistics and divine message was first revealed. This spiritual high compensates for the physical fatigue somehow and keeps me going through the day.”

In addition to the spiritual experience, fasting can increase one's bodily awareness, especially when it comes to health and wellness. It is scientifically recognized as one of the simplest and best detox methods.

“For someone who is starting to fast, I'd recommend not spending much time in the kitchen cooking the meal you're supposed to eat before sunset or before sunrise,” says Abier, who has been fasting every Ramadan of her adult life.

Avoiding elaborate meals and enjoying simple staple foods is best.

“The Quran always references dates as something to eat both before the fast begins and also as the first food to break-fast with. I'd also recommend having milk and yogurt as it is a great long-lasting thirst quencher during the long hot days, unless you're lactose intolerant there are so many nutritious alternatives to milk available.”

“It's better to eat healthy foods that are rich in nutrients and will fill you up instead of empty calories, even though you might be craving an ice cream sundae splashed with syrup, it is probably best not to give in to the temptation until Ramadan is over.”

Although fasting is an obligation for Muslims, there are cases when someone can be exempt. If someone is sick or takes daily medication, if a woman is pregnant or breastfeeding, if you experience physical hardship or become physically ill or are travelling during Ramadan, then you should stop fasting.

“There are ways you can make up for missing fasts due to health concerns,” says Abier. “Taking the time to feed someone or provide a full meal for someone in need is a great way to give back and participate if you are unable to fast.”

“There is a passage from the Quran in the Al-Baqara chapter that I love. To me, it explains fasting during Ramadan best. The passage says: ‘Fast for a specific number of days, but if one of you is ill, or on a journey on other days later. For those who can fast only with extreme difficulty, there is a way to compensate – feed a needy person … and fasting is better for you if only you knew.'”

The Hospital's campus renewal, which began earlier this year, will include a new inter-faith sanctuary to offer an inclusive space of reflection, contemplation and meditation for everyone. Earlier this spring, the Canadian College of Health Leaders honoured Michael Garron Hospital as the recipient of the 2018 Excellence in Diversity and Inclusion Award. The Award honours a forward-thinking Canadian healthcare organization that has demonstrated leadership in creating and promoting diversity and inclusion to improve the environment of its employees, patients and community.

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