July 22, 2020

Vulnerable entrepreneurs find clarity and success through new COVID-19 student initiative

UCalgary epidemiology student empowers home-salon owners

In late May, as some local shops and services prepared to re-open with the Phase 1 easing of Alberta’s COVID-19 restrictions, Seham Elmrayed enthusiastically called her usual salon to schedule a long-awaited eyebrow shaping.

“I assumed she’d be so busy that I better try to book in right away,” says Elmrayed, a PhD student in Community Health Sciences at the Cumming School of Medicine (CSM). To her surprise, the salon owner — whom she knew was a relative newcomer to Canada and the main breadwinner in her home — told Elmrayed she wasn’t planning to re-open her basement studio anytime soon.

  • Photo above: Seham Elmrayed, right, works with Gurinder, a local spa owner, to strengthen safety protocol in her home salon to get her business up and running. Photo courtesy Seham Elmrayed

Disappointed, Elmrayed moved on to another studio in the same suburb only to learn the same thing: Closed indefinitely. She called half a dozen more similarly set up salons, all owned by women relatively new to Canada, most from various parts of Asia; none had plans to re-open.

“At first, I didn’t understand why they thought couldn’t open if they followed certain protocols,” says Elmrayed. When she pressed for answers, however, each woman told her they were either unaware that they were permitted to open and/or that they were overwhelmed and confused by media and other information around adhering to correct COVID-19 related guidelines.

Compassionate, fearless and keen to make a difference

Understandably, while many of the women Elmrayed spoke to have lived in Canada for years, their lives are very much entrenched in their own communities, working from home and taking care of family. English isn’t their first language and, says Elmrayed, many struggle with where to find information and how to make sense of some terminology.

Indeed, some women didn’t have access to the internet where the provincial government’s procedures are outlined, and others were unable to find answers around re-opening a home-based business where, for instance, an elderly relative might also live. Overall, says Elmrayed, these women felt helpless as they watched their businesses slip away.

Compassionate, fearless and keen to make a difference in her community, Elmrayed is a natural fit in her program, which is dedicated to enhancing the well-being of individuals and communities by solving problems in public health and education. Though the Alberta Health COVID-19 guidelines are, in her words, “absolutely excellent,” she recognized that the finer points of such protocols can be difficult for newcomers to put into practice.

“Many of these women didn’t feel they could properly turn these health messages into actions.” 

Volunteer team creates SaferYYC

Elmrayed sought advice from Heather Bensler, director of International and Global Health in the Faculty of Nursing. Within days, she’d pulled together a volunteer team of fellow students from the CSM and Nursing to create SaferYYC, to bridge the gap between health education and practical application.

Via a growing, word-of-mouth network, the SaferYYC team has now met with dozens of home-based estheticians to run through potential scenarios that might cause concern. “We say ‘okay, a customer is coming in, what would you do in this case or that case? What do you say no to or how do you make this safer?’”

Elmrayed says the business owners want to know exactly how to clean differently and what new expectations there might be about booking systems, etc. With guidance from health professionals, the team translates written guidelines into practical, demonstrable advice.

Although this initiative is targeted at a specific community of entrepreneurs, Bensler says it makes all of us stronger and healthier.

This is global health done locally and it is making a difference.

Not surprisingly, Elmrayed is thrilled with what her team has accomplished so far. “We all need positive energy right now.” She’s been most delighted to see some of the women stand tall as natural leaders throughout the process.

“A few of these women quickly became agents of change — they are reaching out to others to support their re-openings.” That, she says, is why she went into community health. “It’s incredible to watch people come together in support and resilience.”


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.