Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR) Innovation Grant awarded to Brescia Professor to provide AIDS intervention strategies for Middle Eastern and North African communities in Canada

 Brescia Assistant Professor, Family Studies and Human Development, Dr. Roula HawaAbove: Brescia Assistant Professor, Family Studies and Human Development, Dr. Roula Hawa

London, ON – According to UNAIDS, despite the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region having the lowest HIV prevalence in the world (less than 0.1%), the rise in new infections since 2001 has put the MENA region among the top two regions in the world with the fastest growing HIV epidemic. When observing this statistic from a Canadian lens, recent trends indicate that the largest group of newcomers to Canada has come from Asia (including the Middle East), with immigrants from the MENA region expected to increase the most rapidly between 2006 and 2031 and more than triple in the next 25 years. As most of the new immigrants from the MENA region settle in Canada’s large cities, such as Toronto, Montreal, Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver, the global HIV trends become important in the Canadian scene. In Ontario, in addition to Toronto and vicinity, Arab and West Asian immigrants settle in Ottawa, Windsor, London and Hamilton. As a significant portion of MENA youths (ages 16 – 29) settle in Canada, many are seeking community-based organizations and local AIDS service organizations to search for resources, which aren’t culturally relevant and readily available – providing a major gap in knowledge and tools to this vulnerable group.

CANFAR has awarded Brescia Assistant Professor in Family Studies and Human Development, Dr. Roula Hawa and her national research team with a $40,000 research grant to actively explore and help repair this gap. Her study, titled “Developing an Innovative, Youth-Driven and Resilience-Based HIV Prevention Intervention for Young People from Middle Eastern and North African Communities (MENA) in Canada” will apply community-based participatory principles and peer-led approaches to develop, pilot and distribute an electronic-based survey to MENA youth in Ontario and British Columbia (BC). This will be used to determine meaningful HIV prevention interventions for MENA youth at a national level.

Initial research for this study began in 2017, with Dr. Hawa’s research team initiating conversations about the sexual health and HIV prevention needs of MENA youth, ages 16 - 29. Funding from two grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) supported the research team to initiate their study program, “Starting the Conversation in HIV Prevention: Exploring Youth Sexual Health Needs in Middle Eastern and North African Communities in Ontario (YSMENA)”. This study provides the foundation and launching pad for Dr. Hawa’s critical next research steps, which is made possible through the CANFAR grant.

“Currently, MENA is home to 80 million youth and its young adult population make up 10% of the world’s population,” reports Dr. Hawa. She goes on to say, “As more and more MENA youth immigrate to Canada, we are seeing an influx of young people in need of sexual health and HIV prevention resources, and yet our community centres are lacking accessible and culturally responsive support services. How are we able to engage these young people, who are so vulnerable to HIV, if we aren’t providing them with the proper tools? It is my sincere hope that the YSMENA study, along with the support of this incredible CANFAR grant, will not only provide Canadian MENA youth with resources that they desperately need, but will build capacity and resilience and provide tremendous support that we – as Canadians – are known for.”  

Launching in January 2021, Dr. Hawa and her research team will commence working on their two-year research grant by operating hand-in-hand with their community team in Ontario and BC to develop a survey, which will be electronically distributed, with additional community outreach to MENA youth who are most vulnerable. The survey will include questions surrounding HIV prevention strategies and suitable interventions, and will serve as a foundation to future work in implementing HIV prevention interventions among MENA youth in Canada.

In addition to Dr. Hawa, the research team includes MENA youth, Africans in Partnership Against AIDS (APAA) as Principal Knowledge User, two Co-Principal Investigators from Ryerson University, and a Co-Investigator from the University of Waterloo. Additional community partners in the study, include: Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN), Canadian Arab Institute and WelcomeHomeTO. In addition, The Afro-Canadian Positive Network of British Columbia (ACPNet) is the study’s main partner in BC.  

A member of the MENA community herself who came to Canada as a refugee from Beirut, Lebanon, this study is of great significance to Dr. Hawa. She explains, “Being a new immigrant in Canada presents feelings of vulnerability – especially when you are a young immigrant. It is my belief that if we want to make positive and lasting change in our communities, we must start with our youth. They are our future, so we must make them our present.”


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