I grew up in Saudi Arabia, I was born in the UK and moved over there with my family when I was about two months old.
Saudi Arabia is hot. It’s a different world.
It’s very conservative and very different to here, but a childhood is a childhood and I was happy. When I was growing up the internet wasn’t a thing, satellite TV was just coming in, so we basically
played football for three hours a day.
As different as growing up in the Middle East might seem compared to the UK, what strikes me now is how much people have, and had, in common. There can be a tendency sometimes to emphasise the differences between people, but I was a Manchester United supporting, Ninja Turtle loving, KFC eating kid. That isn't a million miles away from the average 80's childhood in the UK.
My dad was a cardiologist and Professor at King Saud University in Riyadh. I grew up around dad’s cardiology books and medical textbooks like Netter’s Atlas of Human Anatomy. I’d flick through them because I was bored even though I barely knew how to spell anatomy at that point. It kind of sets you on a path subconsciously.
I enjoyed school, I had a good bunch of friends but a lot of things out in the Middle East were works in progress at the time. For example, here you have Sunday league football teams but in Saudi Arabia, if you wanted more than a kick about, you had to organise that yourself.
You had to set up the teams, set the times, set the dates, where are we going to meet? Who’s going to referee? That was fun in a way, but more importantly it made me proactive and helped me develop leadership skills from an early age.
The teachers at school were from all over of the world so we had a real mix of educational influences. I particularly remember an African-American teacher I had who had an amazing life story. He was the only person in his family to finish school and go to university, he became a teacher and emigrated to the Middle East. He was such an interesting person.
He taught us about the civil rights struggle in America, but also opened our eyes to the situation of others across the world from farmers in virtual serfdom to modern day slavery around the world. Beyond the taught curriculum, that understanding of other cultures from around the world was also a real education.
I moved back to the UK at 15 and went to boarding school in Surrey for A levels. I had different interests academically but I always felt medicine was the perfect blend of arts and science – you’re not purely a scientist, you’re not purely into the humanities, you’re right in between.
I got an offer to study Medicine from a few different universities - I’m really glad I chose St George’s.
By the end of the first week I’d met everyone from final years to freshers to people on other courses, you kept bumping into new people. St George’s has a unique ability to help people meet and get to know each other, it’s a really friendly environment.
During freshers, one of the societies I joined was the Islamic Society. It just so happened that, when I joined, there was a leadership vacuum because a lot of the people who were running the society before had moved on. Suddenly myself and a few friends who were also freshers were running the society. It was a chance to build something from the ground up - a society that was more active and more transparent.
I’ve always felt very strongly about social justice and helping people - it’s one of the reasons I went into medicine. However, the scale of the problems being faced by people across the world is so enormous that it can be difficult to work out where to start to try and help.
As a society we realised that, no matter what you do, you need to work together to have a meaningful effect. So then we thought, what’s the simplest idea to bring people together using the Islamic Society? And the idea was charity because everyone believes in charity.
So that’s where Charity Week came from, it was essentially a unity project. It took three years from coming up with the idea to launching the first Charity Week here at St George’s. Three years of travelling around London talking to people, pitching up at universities that I didn’t go to, sitting in their prayer room hoping someone would speak to me. Three years of trying to get people who don’t normally work together to work together.
It took that long to get people in a room together and say ‘fine, we’ll do this’. And when they did, it worked.
I piloted Charity Week in 2003 before fully launching the following year. People had emphasised to me that you only get one chance to make a first impression and that, if you screw it up, no one will take you seriously again. So I was paranoid and did a trial version before launching properly in 2004.
In 2003 it was just me here at St George’s. I made the poster by pencil, I needed a bucket to collect donations but forgot to buy one so used a shoebox that I had in my room instead, but it seemed to work and it allowed me to iron out the kinks. We raised £72 that year. Last year Charity Week raised £55,000 at St. George's and more than £1.3M worldwide.
People saw what was happening with Charity Week at St George’s and wanted to do the same in their home countries. I’m now involved with running Charity Week on an international level helping to bring new countries on board. We have got a team of 450 people working for Charity Week worldwide. More than the money, the real value is in seeing people who wouldn’t normally work together, work together.
I remember I was coming out of a talk once and there was someone there from Palestine. And I said to them ‘everyone gets to choose where the money from Charity Week goes, there’s a survey at the end of the year, so make sure you select Palestine as a recipient country’ and he said ‘I won’t’. I asked him ‘why not?’ and he replied ‘if I truly believe in unity, I should select a country that has nothing to do with me because that’s the whole point. Putting other people before myself.’
That was validating.
Professionally, I’m a GP. Managing Charity Week can feel like a second full-time job at times and working as a GP gives me the flexibility to do both. It’s nice because it also allows me to teach as well, which I do at St Barts.
I teach two modules ‘The lessons from history in medicine’ and ‘Social media in medicine’, so one looking at the past and another to the future. I find it fascinating.
One of my students felt she was eating too much meat and was interested in the possibility of going vegan. She blogged on Instagram and so had a large community on the platform and she put out a public health message on how much meat is healthy for someone to consume, what the risk factors are if you eat too much red meat, etcetera, etcetera.
It was amazing, I told her that she’d educated more people on healthy eating in a week than I have in the last 12 years of practicing medicine. Healthcare is so far behind fully taking advantage of the power of social media. Some people spend more time connected on social media than off it.
Right now if you go online and you want to learn about a disease, it’s probably not going to be medical professionals that you will hear from, it’ll be drug companies and lobby groups because they are putting out the most engaging information. We need to get on top of that, otherwise we’ll fall behind. It’s something I feel passionate about - the world’s a different place.
Moving forward I’d like to start mentoring other people who have set up their own versions of Charity Week and are looking to grow and develop them. I’d like to help people and causes with that same unity of purpose - not uniformity of views - but the same core values.
Over the next 10 years I hope people will have started with their own projects and campaigns. I’ll have to be flexible because you don’t know how things may change. Using social media as an example, 10 years ago WhatsApp wasn’t a thing, Facebook came about in 2004 just before I graduated but now they’re normal. A similar thing might happen with charities.
But at the end of the day, the basics don’t change. What do all meaningful causes have in common? It’s the people.
Dr Muhammad Akhter is an alumnus of St George’s, University of London who graduated from Medicine in 2006.