Inspirational Woman: Dr Rola Hallam | Founder, CanDo

Dr Rola Hallam

Dr Rola Hallam is a multi-award-winning physician, humanitarian, campaigner, speaker, social entrepreneur and coach.

She’s the first Syrian TED Fellow and the founder of CanDo – a humanitarian organisation supporting frontline health and aid workers to save children’s lives in their war-devastated communities. She has helped build seven hospitals in Syria, including the first-ever crowdfunded hospital, altogether serving over four million people.

As a global advocate for the health and human rights in conflict, she has shared the stage with presidents, celebrities and grassroots activists. She is a TED and Google speaker, and her work has been featured in most media from the New York Times to The Daily Show, including two BBC documentaries.

Her online talks have been seen over 11 million times, inspiring thousands to become change-makers. Rola believes the world needs more visionaries, idealists, rebels and troublemakers – people who stand up, speak out and lead for change.

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Tell us a bit about yourself, your background and your current role

I think I was born a doctor. I recall being six years old, at home in Damascus, playing with my cousins and siblings and insisting on being the doctor performing life-saving surgery on our Barbies and Sindys.

We moved to the UK when I was 12 and I could barely speak English. When it came to applying to universities, my teachers told me my grades weren’t good enough and that I should study chemistry which I excelled at. I thought this was the most preposterous suggestion I’d ever heard. Of course, I was going to be a doctor! I was certainly going to try! It’s now 19 years later and my heart fills with gratitude as I think about the seven hospitals I have helped build and the more than four million people I’ve helped to impact.

Being on the frontline as a doctor, humanitarian, campaigner and social entrepreneur takes its toll. Two years ago, I burnt out and embarked on a massive journey of healing, growth and evolution. From that valley of darkness, I emerged a warrior, embodying the power of Rumi’s poetry “Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself”.

We can’t heal others when we are deeply wounded. It’s why I am now a trauma-informed coach and holistic health practitioner, with a focus on workplace wellness. I am now honoured to support other health leaders and changemakers to transform themselves so that they can transform the world.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Things often look well-planned in retrospect, to the outsider. But no, I’m not a big believer in five-year plans. I believe the best way to ensure a great future is to make the best decisions for you in the present. The reality is we zigzag our way towards our truth, as long as we always do what is aligned with us.

Instead of planning I get clear on my vision and purpose. The questions I ask myself are: What am I here to do on this earth? What is my vision of myself? What is my vision of the world I want to live in? What are my values and my priorities? Then I live, every day, in alignment with that vision and those values. It’s not easy, you get tested a lot, but this has worked every time with every client I’ve had. It’s a much more fulfilling way to live your one precious life. 

Have you faced any challenges along the way? 

Who hasn’t? If you haven’t then I’d say it’s a red flag – you may be keeping yourself in your comfort zone and aren’t stretching yourself to your full glory.

Working in a war zone by default means it’s challenging, not only because of the bullets and bombs but the constant uncertainty and turmoil. As a Syrian, I lost over 30 members of my family which in itself is traumatising and grief-inducing!

I have witnessed so much pain and suffering. Many war crimes like dozens of children being severely burnt after their school was bombed in northern Syria. These things took their toll and wounded me, but have also made me the powerful person I am today.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I am honoured and grateful to have so many. Succeeding in being a doctor as an immigrant, after being told at school my grades weren’t good enough was such a brilliant feeling. Another massive achievement includes building seven hospitals in a war zone – one of which is the first to be crowd-funded. Speaking on the biggest stages from TED to Google, and having my talks and media appearances watched over 11 million times have also been huge highlights for me.

However, the most transformative was birthing my daughter, Naya. The whole pregnancy, labour and birth was a mind-blowing EPIC experience. Not to mention the expansion of the heart and mind of being a parent. She´s the light of my life and has given me more joy and has enabled more healing than anything else in my whole life.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in your achieving success?

I have always had a firm belief in the possibilities. I believe that everything and anything is possible and I am capable of anything I put my heart, soul and back into. I also believe the  universe has my back and that if it’s meant to be, it will happen. The trick is not to get attached to the outcome. The sooner you let go of the delusion of control, the sooner you will have a more joyous life.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee? 

I believe we don’t become ourselves by ourselves. Just as a village is meant to raise a child, I think we need several influences to help nurture us into our fullness. It is why I have chosen to use my two decades of work as a doctor, campaigner and humanitarian to be a life coach. I’ve seen first-hand how transformative it is to have the right companion on the journey called life. A companion who can ask you hard questions, hold a space for your pain, growth and transformation and provide a non-judgmental loving space to allow your unfolding. It’s such a pleasure and honour to witness it every day in my clients, as well as in myself when it’s my turn to receive, to be held and supported.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

For all of us to embrace feminine qualities and the power of feminine leadership. To realise that, in order to navigate storms and get through challenging times with more grace and ease, we need to be in a state of connection, communicating with each other, nurturing each other, and connected to our emotions, expression and creativity. We need to be grounded in love and fierce compassion. Appreciating the life-death-life cycle and that in order for new flowers to bloom, old ones must wither and die. Nothing lasts. We honour each other, in our perfect imperfections.

Once we all, he, she, or they, realise that this wisdom is within each one of us regardless of gender, we will finally move on to a better measure of each other. One where the strength of our values and the height of our character matters more than mere achievements or our genitals!

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be

One isn’t enough. I’m writing her a whole book! But if it had to be one, I would hold her, look her deep in her eyes and tell her, “Your achievements aren’t YOU. Your worth and values have nothing to do with your success, achievement or the money in your bank. Don’t measure yourself or others by achievements. You are worthy and are of immense value, regardless of any prize, accolade or external validation. Worthiness is your divine birthright so don’t allow anyone, not least yourself, to steal that away and make it conditional. Your worth is absolute and infinite.

Oh, and have fun. We must not take life too seriously. Always find the little glimmer of light and focus on it. Where energy flows, energy grows.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

The world needs more frontlines – visionaries, idealists, rebels and troublemakers. People who are willing and able to stand up, speak out and lead for change. People who know so deeply that to change the world we need to be that change, and that it all starts within us. By prioritising ourselves – our own wellness, healing, growth and transformation, our evolution will catalyse and accelerate that of our species.

I am on a mission to make that happen – to help create a world full of inspired and energised frontlines, shining bright as they slay the dragons, face our collective shitshows and save us from Armageddon, so that we may heal our world and elevate humanity. It’s why I am honoured to work with health leaders and change-makers – to coach them to their greatness.

As a holistic health and workplace wellness doctor, that often means supporting people as they recover from burnout and trauma, so they can rediscover their balance, inner peace, and vitality. I blend the art and science of medicine, with the contemplative traditions, to get my clients out of survival mode, and unleash the ‘thriving’ them. A person that is ready to live, love and lead as the inspired and inspiring life-changer that they are. A healing presence the world needs.

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