According to a Moroccan proverb, “The mouth of a wise man is in his heart.” Spend some time in conversation with Said Nafai, OTD, OTR/L, CLT, and you’ll soon understand how true it is.
Dr. Nafai, assistant professor of occupational therapy (OT) in AIC’s School of Health Sciences, speaks straight from the heart when talking about his life, his work, his beloved wife and daughters—whatever the topic, beneath his soft-spoken words beats a heart fierce with love for those struggling with disabilities, for teaching, and for learning.
“I love the diversity of the student body at AIC,” says Nafai. “The students are hardworking and eager to learn, looking to make the world a better place. I feel that AIC students make an effort to be global citizens, and I respect them so much for this.”
Nafai and his students provide OT services free of charge to the communities near AIC, running a yearly CarFit event for seniors at a local senior center, providing training and education for seniors and staff at an assisted living facility, and hosting educational sessions at different senior centers in the area.
Nafai lives out what it means to be a global citizen, embodying the essence of everything AIC represents. Born and raised in Morocco, he is fluent in four languages and conversant in several others. “Arabic and French are my native languages, my wife and I speak German at home, and I learned English since coming to the US in my twenties,” he says. “This ability helps me to develop sincere connections with the patients I work with at the rehabilitation hospital or at the nursing home.”
Several times a year, Nafai returns to Morocco to volunteer, teach, and raise awareness about OT as a profession and a tool for empowering people of all ages who face physical, cognitive, or behavioral challenges. He is often accompanied by students and faculty from across the US who travel with him to learn about Morocco’s health care system and culture. “Over the past few years,” he says, “we have taken hundreds of students and faculty from the US and Europe to experience the fascinating Kingdom of Morocco. Through this, we are helping in building bridges between civilizations and cultures instead of building walls.”
Nafai’s mission in life is summed up by a quote by Cesar Chavez that is included in his AIC email signature: “The end of all knowledge should be service to others.”
In addition to his personal and professional responsibilities, Nafai is the Moroccan delegate to the World Federation of Occupational Therapists; co-founder, with his wife, of the OT Project in Morocco; founder and president of the Occupational Therapy Association of Morocco; vice president of Emmanuel’s Dream, a non-profit for children with special needs; and a board member of the Lymphedema Advocacy Group, which currently has the most cosponsored health care bill in the US Congress, the Lymphedema Treatment Act, whose passage would ensure access to compression garments, vital tools for managing lymphedema.
Every summer for the past four years, Nafai has been invited to the University of New England in Maine to speak at the Interprofessional Education Collaborative Program, addressing thirteen different health professions on the topic of “Considerations in Working with Muslims as Interprofessional Team Members.” He was also invited to speak last year at the Lymphedema Symposium at Harvard University Medical School.
His passion for helping people lead fuller, freer, happier lives began while growing up in Morocco, when his family discovered their newest member had a disability that prevented him from putting any weight on his legs. Watching his little brother heightened Nafai’s sensitivity to such issues, raised his awareness of how critical the right health care services can be, and planted the seeds of what would become a lifelong commitment to making OT—and the requisite education and training—available to as many people as possible worldwide.
It was actually his wife, Elizabeth, who urged him to become an OT professional. The two met at the University of Salzburg in Austria, where Nafai was finishing a law degree and she, a New York native, was studying German. “She couldn’t speak Arabic or French, and I couldn’t speak English,” Nafai recalls. “The only language we both spoke was German, so that’s how we communicated.”
They communicated so well that they eventually moved to the US and married. In 2002, the couple received a brochure from Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, Massachusetts, with information about its OT assistantship program. “My wife handed it to me and said, ‘This is perfect. It sounds just like you,’” says Nafai. “She is my rock and the reason I became an occupational therapist.”
~ Dr. Said Nafai
The rest, as they say, is history. Nafai, following Elizabeth’s prompting, earned his associate degree from Quinsigamond, then his bachelor’s and master’s from Salem State University, and finally his doctorate in OT from Boston University. His doctoral project was titled, “Proposed Curriculum for the First Bachelor of Science in Occupational Therapy in Morocco.”
Today, he and Elizabeth are both occupational therapists and devoted partners in life and work. According to Nafai, Elizabeth “was reading some of the material when I was studying for my master’s degree and she fell in love with OT. So she went back to school and, in 2009, received her master’s degree. She even taught as an adjunct at AIC.”
Their daughters, Safiya and Minna, are following in their parents’ footsteps when it comes to scholarship aimed at making the world a better place. Because of her academic achievements, seventeen-year-old Safiya has already met the mayors of Worcester and Boston, as well as the governor of Massachusetts. She was also featured on CBS This Morning‘s “School Matters” segment.
After a family tragedy, Safiya and her twelve-year-old sister, Minna, founded Brain Saves, an organization that distributes helmets to children in Morocco to prevent traumatic brain injuries.
Minna is named for an ancestor on her mother’s side, Minna Anthony Common, a real-life Anne of Green Gables, a pioneer who dedicated her life to writing, drawing, teaching, and protecting the environment. There’s even a nature preserve named in her honor, the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center in Fineview, New York, one of the largest in the state’s park system.
“The three amazing women in my life are my inspiration,” says Dr. Nafai.
Nafai has dedicated himself to bringing awareness of OT as a life-changing intervention across the globe. He was invited, in 2017, and again in 2019, by the World Health Organization in Geneva, Switzerland, to participate in the “Global Report on Assistive Technology.” He has published about OT, is a frequent presenter at OT conferences worldwide, and continues to be a tireless advocate for the development of OT as a profession in Morocco and elsewhere. He also chairs a yearly OT conference in Morocco that features presenters from five continents.
“I am really excited about the shift in occupational therapy from the medical model, which was important to establish legitimacy when the profession began in 1917, to the social or community-based model,” says Nafai. “Given the current job market and the health issues we are facing in the US, OT jobs are predicted to grow at a much faster rate than the average for all other health professions. If you enjoy helping people, there has never been a better time to enter this field.”
By Ellen Dooley :: photo by Seth Kaye