Toronto’s Nanji Family came to Canada as refugees and promised to pay it forward. Now, they’re helping U of T eye surgeons restore sight—and hope—to people around the world by giving the gift of sight.

Posted on June 24, 2017

“We really wish, from the heart, to give people the gift of sight so they can see the light of all the world,” says Pyarali G. Nanji, explaining why he and his family are making a major gift to support eye care initiatives at the University of Toronto’s Department of Ophthalmology and Vision Sciences.

Restoring vision, training doctors

The generous donation will establish a five-year term Chair for the Department, which will be held by the Department Chair, Dr. Sherif El-Defrawy—an eye surgeon, researcher and award-winning teacher. A large portion of the funds will be dedicated to capacity-building global health missions that El-Defrawy and other faculty members lead in Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Ghana and Haiti, among other low- and middle-income countries.

“We go and spend our days performing cataract surgery and corneal transplantation surgery, restoring vision and sometimes allowing people to see for the first time in their lives,” El-Defrawy explains. Local surgeons who have not had the opportunity to be trained in eye surgery attend the sessions, first observing and then doing operations themselves under supervision. In the evenings, he says, the Canadians will give a lecture or host a discussion about a surgical topic.

When they return home, they have not only transformed the lives of hundreds of patients, but they leave the local surgeons newly equipped to continue the work. “This gift will make an enormous difference,” El-Defrawy says.

Welcomed by Canada, determined to give back

The Nanji Family has been supporting hospitals and health-care initiatives in Canada for more than 45 years—ever since Canada helped them out in a time of crisis. Gulshan and Pyarali G. Nanji were born in Uganda and immigrated to Canada with their four children in 1972. Respected and admired within and beyond their Ismaili community, the Nanji Family’s legacy of philanthropy is remarkable. Motivated by a desire to give back to their adopted country, they have donated millions of dollars to causes that are close to their hearts. “Canada is a very humanitarian country,” says Pyarali Nanji. “They look after so many people here. At the same time, we have to make more efforts to give more help to underdeveloped countries. With the University, we want to help in this area.”

The vital impact of vision care

With this new donation, the Nanjis are not only supporting a needed medical service, but providing opportunity and hope—just like the gift of a fresh start that they received in Canada.

“All our senses are important,” explains El-Defrawy, “but vision is critical in allowing us to maintain autonomy. When vision is lost, individuals become unable to work and provide for themselves. And because in most of the countries we work in there is no social safety net, vision loss often leads to being destitute. Cataract surgery can mean people are able to prepare their own food again, or in many cases go back to doing constructive work. It relieves a burden on the whole family.”

Here in Toronto, part of the Nanji Family’s gift will also benefit patients and ophthalmology trainees across the city, as the department’s network of vision experts reaches across five major Toronto hospitals.