Diagnosed with OCD as a child, Mississauga youth wins Ontario award for global humanitarian work


Published March 22, 2024 at 11:34 am

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As a child growing up in Mississauga Haya Khan would wash her hands until they bled.

Khan, now 21 years old, was diagnosed with an Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) as a child. But through recovery, she founded a global humanitarian not-for-profit organization at only 15 years old, and this month accepted a provincial award for her work.

As young as seven years old, Khan started washing her hands for up to 15 minutes at a time, she tells insauga.com.

“(I) washed my hands to a point where the blood and bruises would literally begin to mark my hands,” she says.

In Grades 5 and 6, she learned about clean water and sanitation and the challenges people face around the world. She did a project on clean water and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. She started to think about how people around the world struggle to get clean water but because of her disorder, she often let the tap run.

“Something clicked in my heart…I’m just like, I have to find a way to stop this, I need to find a way to become better. I have to save water and I have to do my part,” she said.

People with OCD typically know what they are doing doesn’t make sense but often fear that something terrible will happen if they do not perform certain compulsive rituals. Treatment can help people slowly manage their symptoms and improve their quality of life.

Fortunately, Khan was able to get cognitive behavioural therapy.

At age 15, while still in treatment for OCD and a student at Erindale Secondary School, she started Canadian non-for-profit, HayaHelps, a humanitarian aid organization focused on water, sanitation and health care.

She has raised over $400,000 to construct solar panel water wells, deliver food aid, emergency disaster response and livelihood programs in regions of Canada, Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

She has positively transformed the lives of over 100,000 Indigenous, homeless, at-risk, refugee, and marginalized citizens, according to the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers. And she works to de-stigmatize mental health through the grass-root “EmpowHER” program and helps refugee women struggling with mental illness and trauma through psycho-social rehabilitation, entrepreneurial training and financial literacy.

haya khan mississauga hayahelps

Haya Khan is seen in Pakistan.

Khan says she started HayaHelps with just $20 and with the help of YouTube and Google, designed a logo and set up a website. She used free consultations with lawyers to learn how to set up a non-profit organization. Her parents didn’t know she was doing it until they had to sign something because she was under 18 years old.

She funds projects through crowdfunding online. She will post a campaign online and receive donations through social media and word of mouth.

Now studying at Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, Ireland, Khan hopes to work in global health or psychiatry in the future. But she continues to run campaigns with HayaHelps including an effort to help rebuild and heal communities in Syria and Türkiye following the catastrophic earthquakes in 2023.

On March 1, Khan travelled back to Ontario to accept the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers for 2021 and 2022 from Edith Dumont Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. The award is the highest recognition for outstanding volunteer contributions by young individuals between the ages of 15 and 24, emphasizing their impact on both local communities and the province at large.

She was one of 24 youth to win the award along with fellow Mississauga youth Aryan Gautam who founded a federally-incorporated non-profit, “Save the Planet – Open Doors.”

Khan says accepting the award was a big moment in her life, one she doesn’t take lightly.

“I am a woman of colour and I am an immigrant, and I am Muslim,” she says. “So, for me, this was a really proud moment for my community, because I think it comes with a great responsibility to represent my community and to do that in a space where it’s mainly European or non-Muslim people that are winning the award.”

haya khan mississauga hayahelps

Haya Khan accepted the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers from Edith Dumont, Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario on March 1.

The ceremony celebrated the achievements of remarkable young people, highlighting their exceptional volunteer work throughout 2021 and 2022.

Khan describes transforming the trauma of OCD into something positive as a “golden egg”.

“The biggest thing that I want to say to people is that they’re able to turn their struggles into something positive and everyone’s able to do that,” she says.

“No matter how stuck somebody feels or how much they feel like there won’t be an end to a problem or a scenario or a personal challenge, people can overcome that and, you know, eventually do something that’s beautiful and find meaning and find healing through it in a way.”

Learn more about HayaHelps here and more about the Ontario Medal for Young Volunteers here.

Lead photo: Haya Khan in Türkiye following the catastrophic earthquakes in 2023.

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