For Samra Zafar, the word courage may as well be her middle name.
Whether it was busting gender norms to play cricket as a girl or walking away from an abusive marriage to realize her dream of attending university, Zafar needed all the courage she could muster to reach her dreams.
Now in her late thirties, the bestselling author drew on her reserves of courage once more, leaving a lucrative banking career to realize her dream of becoming a doctor and help others heal by obtaining a medical degree at McMaster University’s Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine.
And her bravery is being noticed. Zafar, who wrote the national bestseller A Good Wife: Escaping The Life I Never Chose, about leaving an abusive child marriage, will be presented with a Women of Courage award at the Women’s Executive Network (WXN) virtual gala on Nov. 25, for her work to break barriers for other women.
This is the second time in two years she has made WXN’s list of Canada’s 100 most powerful women, having previously won in the RBC Champions category in 2019.
“This new award is very close to my heart, because courage is the biggest value that I live by. For me, it is not the absence of fear, but rather knowing that you are afraid and still choosing to move forward with something you believe in,” said the first-year medical student.
“We all deserve to be accepted, respected and empowered for who we are, but sadly we live in a world where we often face barriers forcing us to hide our true selves and feel that we are unable to reach our true potential.
“My mission is to help break these barriers for people, so that everyone can live a life that is free and true for who we are as individuals.”
While Zafar is currently flying high, her journey was often riven with heartbreak.
At 17, she was married to a man more than 10 years her senior and arrived in Canada as a child bride, and she faced years of abuse, oppression, and opposition against her education. Zafar’s controlling ex-in-laws condoned her ex-husband’s violent behaviour, saying that a woman’s place was at home.
Nevertheless, Zafar never gave up on her dreams, enrolling at the University of Toronto to study economics while looking after her two children, Kinza and Saarah.
Her time at the university also gave Zafar the push she needed to leave her abuser.
“Even when there was no hope of being able to go to university, I would stand in front of the mirror and practice that graduation speech I would one day give – and I gave it when I graduated as a top student,” said Zafar.
“That was also when I went public with my story. I logged into my Facebook and my inbox was flooded with thousands of messages from all over the world, congratulating me and thanking me for breaking the silence.”
Zafar went on to become a governor at the University of Toronto, a board member for the Women's College Hospital Foundation and an ambassador for Plan International Canada. She is also a human rights activist, motivational speaker and social entrepreneur.
Her speaking portfolio includes three TEDx talks, and international development organizations, corporations, universities and non-profits around the world.
She is the founder of Brave Beginnings, a national not-for-profit organization that provides mentorship to abuse survivors to support them in their journey of building a life of respect and dignity. Her story and work have been featured in national and global media and has earned her many awards and recognition.
Now at McMaster, Zafar sees medical school as another vehicle for her life’s mission. While she has not decided exactly what specialty she wants to pursue after completing her medical degree, Zafar sees her future role as a physician helping others heal, thrive, and rebuild their self-esteem, as well as promoting mental health and building a more inclusive society.
Zafar said McMaster already lives up to the ideal of inclusion, as the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine welcomes applications from candidates with non-science backgrounds. In her view, this brings a broader perspective to the health sciences field.
“I feel super proud and very honoured to be a student at McMaster and I really hope that my story and words can give others hope,” said Zafar.
“I’m truly fascinated by what I’m learning, and I feel so supported by the whole university community.”
Since starting the program in August, Zafar is commuting between her home in Toronto and classes at the medical school’s Niagara Regional Campus. Despite the long drives, Zafar said she did not want to disrupt her children’s lives by relocating, with her eldest daughter Kinza studying journalism at Ryerson University and her younger daughter, Saarah, still in high school. Zafar says she enjoys the long drives and the beautiful campus at Niagara.
Nicknamed the ‘Power Girls’ by Saarah, the trio often study together, supporting each other with hugs and motivation. Her daughters often say, “Mom, you are teaching us that it’s never too late to go after our dreams. It is so liberating!”
“We’ve created our own normal and we love it,” said Zafar.
“It feels like we’re like a bunch of students having fun and supporting each other as we achieve our goals!”