Thrive by IU Health

May 28, 2021

From North Africa to the U.S.: Expatriate encourages community engagement

From North Africa to the U.S.: Expatriate encourages community engagement

A native of Algeria, Mohamed Merzoug joined IU Health’s Community Outreach and Engagement team last year. Now he’s joining hundreds of hospital employees volunteering to serve local organizations during IU Health’s Days of Service.

By IU Health Senior Journalist T.J. Banes, tfender1@iuhealth.org

He stepped foot on U.S. soil with $300 in his pocket. He spoke no English and didn’t have a single person to call “friend,” “family member” or even “acquaintance.”

Mohamed Merzoug was a stranger in a new land – hoping to seek a better life. He learned early on the powerful lesson of building a community. At the age of 25, he fled his homeland of Algeria and the threat brought on by Civil War.

IU Health's Mohamed Merzoug

“I got my visa from the US embassy, took a taxi to the border and a train to Casablanca. I spent one night in a hotel and the next day caught a flight to New York City,” said Merzoug, the middle of nine children. Today he has only two siblings, and his mother, 76, remaining in Algeria. The others also escaped the violence in their homeland. Two sisters moved to Morocco, another sister to Belgium, a brother to Germany, and another to California. One sister and his father are deceased.

“The war lasted 10 years and over 150,000 people were killed – many by random shootings. I know I made the right choice to leave,” said Merzoug. “When I arrived in New York, I turned my palms up and said ‘thank you God that I made it to this country of the freedom.’ New York in the 90s was full of diversity and freedom. I had faith and I am alive. I am here,” said Merzoug.

He looks back now on those first days in the United States and wonders if it was some sort of dream. His humble beginnings included delivering food for a Pakistani restaurant and working in sales for an Iranian shop owner.

“I worked in a vary dangerous area but after escaping the Civil War I was not afraid. I didn’t think about danger in the same way,” said Merzoug. “I learned three words, ‘selling’ and ‘how much.’” With a meager income, he lived on a single muffin and hot chocolate most every day. Coming from a large family, he knew how to stretch a pot of beans and 78 cents worth of pita bread for a week’s worth of meals.

And while he made a living, he enrolled in classes to learn English as a second language and took other students under his wing.

“I learned at an early age from my parents the importance of helping others. I used to walk two miles to the grocery store for my mother and carry everything back home. Before I left my mother always asked the neighbors what they needed. We were a community and in a community you help each other,” said Merzoug. So in New York he helped other newcomers open bank accounts and find things they needed to start their lives in the United States.

After five years, he moved from New York to Denver where he took a job as a taxi driver. He enrolled in a community college and began taking classes toward an associate’s degree in applied science. His future wife, Farhana, who is from Singapore, was working on her doctorate in Cancer Biology at Michigan’s Karmanos Cancer Institute. They married in 2000 and moved from Michigan to Maryland where she accepted a job with the National Cancer Institute, National Institute of Health. When Farhana’s mother was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer the couple and their firstborn son, Aadam, now 18, moved to Singapore for five years. Their second son, Elias, was born in 2008 in Singapore.

Merzoug family photo

While Farhana began work for Eli Lilly’s offices in Southeast Asia, Merzoug worked as a translator in a hospital. All the while he continued his education. When they moved back to the United States Farhana continued working with Eli Lilly and Company in cancer research. Merzoug completed a bachelor’s degree in French and went on to get his master’s degree in philanthropy both at IUPUI.

“I’ve always had a thirst for learning. When I walked into the Lilly School of Philanthropy I’d been doing and living what they were teaching but I didn’t know it had a title,” said Merzoug, who received a full academic scholarship, and went on to obtain his certification in fundraising management.

Last year, Merzoug joined IU Health and works as a project manager for community outreach and engagement. This month, he will help oversee, IU Health’s “Days of Service” an annual event that pairs employees with various community service projects. Last year, 2,300 employees volunteered for more than 125 projects. This year, employee volunteers are signed up to take part remotely in more than 100 projects throughout September.

“This is all about giving back to the community and it’s something I strongly believe in,” said Merzoug. Even outside his job, he volunteers for Coburn Place and the Julian Center – both providing support for victims of domestic violence; Second Helpings – both providing food to hungry Hoosiers; Wheeler Mission – providing food and emergency shelter; and Damien Center – providing HIV care and education. He and his sons have also been active with Boy Scouts of America. Merzoug credits the organization with helping reinforce his core values, “God, country, and community.”

At one point he volunteered with AmeriCorps working with the Center for Interfaith. He was placed at St. Monica Catholic Church working with Hispanic Immigrants.

“Imagine a Muslim talking to a priest – I said, ‘we are all brothers and sisters. We are all a community,’” said Merzoug. His role was to provide immigrants with information on citizenship law, health issues, and social services.

“At home I tell my kids to eat what they’re given and to be thankful. I tell them to make sure in our house we are a working team and we always remember to give back – whether it’s through sports, music, scouts, or volunteering. It’s our job to help others,” said Merzoug. “I also teach them to be proud of their heritage, to be appreciative and respectful. I learned early not to judge people and to treat them as people - as we would want to be treated.”