Meet Midia Shikh Hassan, this year’s Queen’s Young Leader

All photos courtesy of Midia Shikh Hassan

The Queen’s Young Leaders program was launched in 2014 by Queen Elizabeth II to recognize and celebrate young excellence within the Commonwealth countries. It is a four year program (2014-2018) in which 60 young individuals from 53 different countries are selected each year to win the prestigious award. Having become a leader at the young age of 25, the Queen wished to show recognition to the power of the youth and the importance of celebrating their exceptional accomplishments and their contribution to social change. Each winner gets the chance to meet the Queen, receive a medal and have access to an exclusive, one-year leadership training offered by the University of Cambridge.

Midia Shikh Hassan, age 26, is one of the three Canadians to receive this year’s award. We sat down with Midia to discuss her impressive accomplishments.

Ottawa Life Magazine: Tell me a little about yourself, your academic background, and your ambitions.

Midia Shikh Hassan: I was born in Syria, raised in Emirates, and moved to Canada with my family in 2009 and just recently graduated from the University of Ottawa with a degree in Chemical Engineering. I initially got enrolled in the Health Sciences and Biochemistry program and ended up working in the field for a little while, until I realized that it wasn’t for me. I’ve always wanted to help save lives and thought that being a doctor was the only way to do that. Evidently, that is not true whatsoever. So, in 2014, I decided to come back to school and study chemical engineering. I had always been fascinated with manufacturing and industries. My best childhood memory was going to a factory and I remember being so astonished by how it all worked. It felt like Disneyland for me. When my parents would buy me toys, I would break them apart to see how they were manufactured, what was inside of them and how they were all connected. It blew my mind. As part of my engineering program, I took a business and technology course and I fell in love with social entrepreneurship right then and there.

How did you first hear about the Queen’s Young Leader and what inspired you to apply?

I first heard about it in 2016, from one of the first Queen’s Young Leaders winners. I met him at the One Young World ceremony that was held at the Shaw Center, here in Ottawa. We talked for hours about our projects, our accomplishments, our ambitions and he really encouraged me to apply. I thought about it for a while but I think I was just not secure and confident enough back then to apply to such a prestigious award. Fast forward to 2017, when I started to hear buzz about it again – I took a step back and really thought about everything I had been doing and realized just how just how much I have accomplished. That’s when I decided to apply. But even then, I never thought I’d actually win!

Tell me a little about these accomplishments. What are some of the projects and achievements that helped you win this award?

A very important project I am working on is the Makerspace 3D printing. We essentially design cost-effective prosthetics, 3D-print them and send them overseas for children in need. Given that amputation can be a very big stigma in many countries, we started receiving a large number of requests. I think what is really distinctive about our work is just how affordable the prosthetics are. They cost $20 to produce, which is significantly less than all previous alternatives.

An interesting case that I have worked on is for a kid in morocco who had a double amputation. We were able to develop and send him two 3D printed arms last year. Unfortunately, the hands did not fit well at first which was somewhat of a setback for us, but we did not let it stop us. I am so glad to say that just a few weeks ago, we were able to send a set of 4 hands to him and they fit perfectly! 

Another major project of mine is working with Syrian refugees. In 2015, around 20,000 Syrian refugees moved to Canada. Being Syrian myself, I knew I had to contribute and help in any way possible. I spoke the language, came from the same culture and with the skills I had gained from the extensive mentorship trainings I got in the past, I knew that I would be able to connect with them on a different level. We decided to go talk to these refugees and really listen to what they need, instead of just making our own assumptions. I worked with mainly 82 Syrian families, and surprisingly, the majority expressed interest in starting a small business, finding a job, etc… Some women who had infants were looking for jobs they can do from home for example. After long hard work and amazing teamwork, many of them now have full-time jobs! Knowing that I was able to really help them build a life here, is just an indescribable feeling. In addition to that, we were able to run tech-based workshop and activities for the kids and expose them to science, math and 3D printing. Many of these kids had not been to school for over 5 years and so exposing them to all these subjects was really interesting for them and it was phenomenal seeing them change and grow with time.

We did what we wanted to do. We helped families and kids and really made a difference. We achieved our goal. Working with them made us really understand what they are going through and really listen to the issues they face.

How did you hear that you won this prestigious and very well-deserved award?

In December 2017, the committee contacted me and scheduled a skype call. I thought it was just another part of their very detailed selection process, but little did I know they called to tell me that I was officially a Queen’s Young Leader. The names did not go public until January 2018, though. Then, in April, the award committee selected 7 winners out of the entire program, to attend the Commonwealth Head of Government meeting in London, UK; all the ministers and the Prime ministers from the Commonwealth countries, alongside the Royal Family meet to discuss the Commonwealth charter, events that are happening in these countries and so on. The theme for this year was Prosperity and Youth. Even though the youth represents 30% of the commonwealth countries, their voices are rarely ever heard. For that reason, they decided to invite the 7 winners to attend this meeting. I was one of these 7 lucky people. A few months later, in June 2018, all of this year's winners were invited to meet the Queen and receive the medal.

Midia Shikh Hassan with Duke and Duchess of Sussex

It must have been a surreal experience meeting the royal family and visiting the palace. What are some of the highlights of the entire experience?

I first met The Duke and Duchess of Sussex (Prince Harry and Meghan Markle) at the Queen Elizabeth II Center, a day before the Commonwealth Head of Government meeting. When they first approached us, Prince Harry spotted the prosthetic hand I was holding and was very interested in it. He asked a few questions about my work and we ended up having an amazing conversation. They were both very easy to talk to and incredibly humble. I did not feel as nervous as I thought I would be.

Meeting the Queen was amazing, obviously. Definitely the highlight of the entire trip. While I was walking up to her to receive my medal, I felt like everything went silent. I couldn’t hear the music anymore. All I could see and hear was her. I remember her saying “Well, Canada is doing quite well tonight!" She asked a little about my work, shook my hand, and congratulated me while giving me the medal.

If you had the chance to deliver one message to every young person out there hesitant to get involved in socio-political issues, what would you tell them?

We take so much for granted, whether it is privilege, experiences, knowledge… Others don’t have that. People see injustice, acknowledge that it is wrong and unfair, but rarely do they get up and do something about it. I believe that it is the responsibility of each young individual to contribute to society in any way that they can, defend whatever cause they believe in. They have the responsibility to be an active member in society, now more than ever. Unlike before, we are at a time where you can access knowledge, education, research, news… there is no limit as to what you can do.

My personal motivation to always stay active and work towards the greater good is just imagining where I potentially could have been right now, if my parents didn’t decide to move to Canada years ago. I would probably be in a refugee camp or tortured to death right now. So I don't want to take that for granted. I was given a privilege and I am going to use it in any way that I can. Anyone who has any kind of privilege should do the same.