Sep. 30 2019

Student Q&A: My UNGA Week

While much of the United States tuned into the domestic political drama this past week, Hani Mahmoud, a second-year MPH student in Population and Family Health, was busy on the big stage of global policy, attending close to a dozen side events, as part of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, a.k.a. the UNGA (pronounced by many insiders, “Un-Gah,” as in “Happy Un-Gah.”) And he didn’t miss a single class.

Before starting his studies at Columbia Mailman, Mahmoud, who is now enrolled in the Humanitarian Action Certificate within the Program on Forced Migration and Health, spent much of the last five years in the Middle East, first as a Fulbright Scholar in Kuwait and then as a healthcare consultant in the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. For his summer practicum, he was based in Cairo where he worked for the World Health Organization to develop a health education toolkit designed for addressing non-communicable diseases in protracted humanitarian crises. An avid traveler who has visited more than 85 countries, the Seattle native has found a happy home in New York City, which he describes as the perfect jumping-off point for a career in global health.

Happy UNGA! How was it? How did you get involved?

Initially, typical of a student, I went for the free food, but I soon recognized the opportunity to network and learn more about what people are doing right now in global health. You can see current and former heads of state, the leaders of the world’s biggest health organizations, even royalty. To take part, all you have to do is RSVP early at UNGAguide.com, where you can search for events hosted by NGOs, governments, and companies. About three-quarters of the events are open to the public. My UNGA week started last Sunday with a four-mile run in Central Park organized by the WHO where I ran alongside its director-general, Dr. Tedros. I saw him again later that day at the Accelerating Global Preparedness for Health Emergencies event. It was at that event where I also saw my new boss, Tom Frieden [CEO of Resolve to Save Lives at Vital Strategies, former head of U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and MPH class of ‘86]. It was a little embarrassing because I figured Sundays would be more casual and then I was the only one not wearing a suit. My advice: always dress up.

I also ran into a couple of other Mailman students at the UNGA side events. For anyone at Mailman interested in global health, I would definitely recommend checking out UNGA. It’s a huge benefit to be in New York City, with the UN and so many NGO headquarters right in your backyard.

Was there one event that stood out for you?

Given my interest in NCDs, I went to a talk hosted by the NCD Alliance and WHO called Planetary Health. It focused on the intersection of climate change and universal health coverage, which are two of the main topics at UNGA this year. I heard from the President of Palau [a Pacific Island nation on the front lines of the climate crisis] who told a very vivid story about how obesity is plaguing his nation in part because climate change has forced people to turn from fish to processed foods. I’ve never seen a president more engaged in health, and yet his country has one of the highest obesity rates, so this says to me that the health risks of climate change can often outweigh even the strongest public health agendas. It’s not something that I gave much thought to before. Ironically, there was really good fish at the reception—it was at the Scandinavia House.

You’re more than halfway to commencement. How is everything going? What’s next?

Mailman has definitely cemented my interest in global health. I’m in the Program on Forced Migration and Health, which has given me a new lens on global health. I’m especially interested in the Middle East where there are millions of migrants, often “lost” in urban centers, with chronic diseases whose needs are unmet. I like to think my coursework has given me the tools and academic background to work meaningfully in that field. The professors here are constantly going back and forth to work internationally, and it’s really valuable to learn directly from the people who are engaged in this global health work. Looking ahead, I think I’d like to be based in New York for a while after graduation. In the near-term, I’m looking forward to getting started at Vital Strategies, and to going on my next international trip. I’ll be in Cuba in October.