The stethoscope around her neck may symbolize Zeena Mestari’s future profession. Still, what matters most to the first-year student at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA is giving back to her community.
Growing up near Dearborn, Michigan — home to a large Arab American population — Mestari saw firsthand the challenges that Arab and Arab American communities faced in accessing quality mental health education and resources. In part, she said, that’s because many simply weren’t aware of mental health resources available to them.
It was that observation that inspired her, in 2020, to become a program manager for a mental health nonprofit called Express, Fulfill, Prosper. There, she collaborated with social workers, therapists, medical and dental students, local leaders and families to create free mental health programs for neurodivergent children.
“Dearborn is a special place for me. It is where my passion for medicine sparked. I want to help increase awareness and access to affordable programs and create a safe space for children to grow and for families to receive guidance about health-related resources” Mestari said.
Today, as the vice chair of policy for the UCLA chapter of the American Medical Association, Mestari advocates for her Arab and Arab American communities and for neurodivergent children. She has collaborated with a Michigan state representative to assess and strategize approaches to advocate for youth with disabilities and increase understanding of ways to support youth and their transition into adulthood.
“Like in many minority communities, there is a stigma attached to seeking mental health support,” Mestari said. “It’s not always easy for families to be vulnerable with their challenges, but I want to be a part of the effort to help them feel safe about seeking support.”
Mestari has continued to pursue her passion for helping her community since arriving at UCLA. In 2022, she and two other UCLA medical students — Al-Hassan Dajani and Zina Jawadi — founded the student-led Arab Health Organization. Among AHO’s main goals are creating an inclusive space for UCLA’s Arab health care community, fostering networking opportunities and community outreach; the group already has grown to 150 members, including physicians, residents and medical students.
Following the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Turkey and Syria on Feb. 6, she and other AHO members, UCLA faculty and staff participated in sending much-needed supplies to the affected regions. Through her work with AHO, Mestari also has helped provide support and resources to Middle Eastern and African refugees through a partnership with TIYYA, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit.
During the medical school’s “second look” day, when admitted students who are considering UCLA visit the campus, AHO reached out to prospective students who identified as having Middle East and North African descent and offered to set up mentor-mentee relationships once the students committed to UCLA. In fact, Mestari has already been mentoring a student from Michigan who was recently admitted to the medical school.
Mestari has also drawn inspiration from faculty and administrators at the medical school, including Dr. Neveen El-Farra, one of AHO’s faculty advisors and a professor of clinical medicine; and Dr. Jennifer Lucero, the medical school’s associate dean for admissions and the vice chair for equity, diversity and inclusion for the department of anesthesiology and perioperative medicine.
“They were a big part of why I wanted to study at UCLA,” Mestari said. “Just as they have created a sense of belonging for me, I also strive to provide a welcoming space for others to feel connected and empowered through AHO and in my work.”
As her studies at UCLA continue, Mestari said, she hopes to find opportunities to work with children with neurodevelopmental physical disorders and to continue serving as a resource for the Arab American communities, both in Los Angeles and her hometown, and more broadly.
“I am proud to be Arab and Arab American and an aspiring female medical professional of color,” she said. “It’s important to increase the visibility of people who look like you and empower others along the way.”