The Munk School of Global Affairs encourages students to apply what they learn to a global issue they’re passionate about. Sometimes it saves lives.
A great idea can strike at any time. For Adam Sheikh, now a second-year student in the peace, conflict & justice and contemporary Asian studies programs, an ordinary evening watching television led him to create a non-profit organization that could save thousands of lives.
Sheikh learned from the Discovery Channel that some of the actors in the movie Alien wore specialized vests under their massive costumes in order to keep cool. “I started looking into this concept of cooling vests, and I figured maybe it could work elsewhere.”
Inspired to tackle a global problem by his professors in the Munk One first-year foundation program, Teresa Kramarz and Joseph Wong, Sheikh came up with the potentially life-saving idea of using cooling vests as a safety tool on construction sites in the Gulf region. Kramarz, a professor of global affairs and director of the Munk One program, said she and her colleagues encourage students to apply what they learn at the Munk School to an issue they’re passionate about. “They’re doers. They see connections, they see how global problems are connected to local realities, and they’re deeply motivated to do something,” said Kramarz.
Having spent time in the Middle East, Sheikh knew that as Qatar prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2022, there is mounting concern over the treatment and safety of migrant workers hired to build stadiums and other infrastructure. A 2014 report on working conditions in Qatar estimated that 7,000 migrant workers could die before the World Cup begins—partly as a result of having to perform heavy labour in summer temperatures that regularly exceed 40 degrees Celsius.
With cooling vests, Sheikh identified a critical way to intervene. He and a group of students—including peers from the Munk School of Global Affairs—pitched the idea at the 2016 Asian Institute Richard Charles Lee Insights Through Asia Challenge Competition, and received funding to purchase and field test the vests. Sheikh has since formed Aegis, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing cooling vests to migrant workers, bringing on board students from across the University of Toronto, as well as from McMaster University and Iroquois Ridge High School in Oakville.
To pilot the project, Aegis partnered with manufacturer Inuteq and Six Construct, a construction company that works in the Gulf region. Armed with 100 cooling vests, Sheikh and his Aegis colleague Denys Linkov—a student of computer science, employment relations and psychology—visited Qatar last summer to test the idea on one of Six Construct’s construction sites.
“We would measure the workers’ body temperature, heart rate and blood pressure,” said Sheikh. “In one month, the number who had high blood pressure dropped by 50 per cent. By the end of our testing, the workers gave the vests an average rating of seven out of 10.”
They returned to Canada and worked with Inuteq to refine the vest’s design to meet specific safety and cooling needs. Their vests now have high-visibility striping, and the material is thicker than standard, which extends the cooling time. Aegis is the sole distributor of these improved vests, and is working with Six Construct in the hope of supplying 10,000 to the company’s World Cup construction sites.
Last October, Sheikh’s Aegis and Munk One colleague Jordan Imahori—a student of economics and of peace, conflict & justice who is the other driving force behind the project—presented their work at the Vatican Youth Symposium, a two-day assembly where young leaders from around the world shared ideas for achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
They’ve since attracted the attention and support of high-profile alumni who are helping the Aegis team with connections and moving the project forward in the Middle East. Their next destination in the summer of 2017 was Dubai and Saudi Arabia, thanks to funding from the Faculty of Arts & Science Dean’s International Initiatives Fund.
“Adam has developed a toolkit for engaging with a problem in a very specific, tangible way,” said Kramarz. “This reflects the mindset we want to create in our students—of the globally engaged citizen.”
Story by Adrienne Harry
ABOUT PETER AND MELANIE MUNK
In 2010, the Munk School of Global Affairs received a transformative gift of $35 million from Peter Munk (BASC 1952) and Melanie Munk, the largest single gift from individuals in the university’s history at the time. One of the programs launched as a result is Munk One, an undergraduate foundational year program.
Adam Sheikh and Jordan Imahori of Aegis at the Munk School of Global Affairs. Photo: Jackie Shapiro.