Zul Surani, Chair of the Asian Pacific Islander National Cancer Survivors Network

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Spotlight Spotlight interviews advocates, community leaders and policymakers who have dedicated their careers to improving our communities, our nation and the world.

Zul R.H. Surani is manager for community outreach and partnerships at the University of Southern California’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center. He is also the co-founder and director of Saath USA, a community-based organization focused on South Asian health.

Zul currently serves at the chair for the Asian Pacific Islander National Cancer Survivors Network based at the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum. Zul is also a volunteer with the Aga Khan Council for the Western United States focusing on outreach and partnerships.

What (or who) inspired you to do the work you are doing?

I have been asked many times about what drives me to pursue community work. Observation of my mother’s dedication to community service, while I was growing up in Kenya and later when my family immigrated to the United States, as well as my upbringing as a Shia Ismaili Muslim have certainly shaped my personal philosophy of community service.

Who would play you in a movie and why?

I would like George Clooney to play me in a movie. He is a fine actor and has a legacy of social activism with the goal of global peace and justice. He also doesn’t die his salt and pepper hair  which I can relate to.

What is the biggest policy challenge facing the United States and how would you fix it?

Racial and ethnic minorities face the most significant preventable threats to their health in this country. Many causes of these threats such as obesity, inactivity, exposure to tobacco and lack of access to health are socially determined.

I would call upon the experts and policy makers to transform communities through partnerships to achieve two major goals:

  1. to increase quality and years of healthy life, and
  2. to eliminate health disparities among different segments of the population and create health equity.

The prevention fund established as a result of the Affordable Care Act can serve as a catalyst to achieving these goals and funds from it cannot be diverted to medical cancer or anything else.

What was the last book you read? What is the most important thing you learned from it?

The last book I read was Istanbul by Orhan Pamuk who won the Nobel Prize in literature for this book that captures the melancholic soul of this city in his narrative. Istanbul is a city that physically unites Europe and Asia, it is also a city where difference in its peoples is very pronounced.

I think the most important point is that the author does not portray this difference as a clash of cultures and civilizations nor a clash between the East and the West but as different ways in which people look at the world. In an interview about this book he said, “All generalizations about East and West are generalizations. Don’t believe them, don’t buy them.”

How can people find out more about your work or get involved?

I work in cancer prevention, control and survivorship addressing disparities faced by racial and ethnic communities.  In my work at the University of Southern California’s Norris Comprehensive Cancer Center, I manage outreach and community partnerships bridging scientific advances into practice.

As Chair of the Asian Pacific Islander National Cancer Survivors Network, I bring voices of Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander cancer survivors to the forefront and help impact policies that can improve their quality of life. I encourage people to like us on Facebook and check out our Videos of Hope.

As a founder of Saath USA, I am focused on addressing health and cancer disparities in the South Asian communities.

I welcome help and participation in all of my endeavors and would be happy if anyone contacted me to get involved. Please email me.

What do you value about where you grew up?

I was very young when I left Kenya. I do remember that my neighbors were Christians, Hindus , Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis, and Goans.

I remember celebrating religious holidays at my neighbors. This acceptance of each others religions and cultures was the norm where I grew up. It was therefore quite a shock to me when I came to the US and this was not the case. Pluralism is now becoming a topic of discussion among intellectuals and I hope that it becomes the norm soon.

What advice do you have for young people who are interested in your field?

I started working in health care administration, was a community organizer and ended up in cancer prevention and control/research.

I have realized that there are many other disciplines that intersect with public health: communication, public policy, global health, gerontology, sociology, psychology, education, community psychology, demography and many more. There are many dimensions to public health and having experience in several of them, makes you a greater asset. Also getting a Masters in Public Health can greatly help you in this field.

What do you do when you are not saving the world?

Los Angeles is a center of modernism and I enjoy exploring modern art, design and architecture in Southern California from the 1950s and 60s time period. It was exciting recently to explore Pacific Standard Time which brought together more than sixty cultural institutions throughout Southern California which told the story of the rise of the Los Angeles art scene and how it became a new force in the art world.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Cadbury chocolates from London (Dairy Milk, Whole Nut, Fruit and Nut, Crunchie and Flake).