When it comes to mental health in the region, few voices have reached such volumes as Ally Salama’s.
The region’s first self-proclaimed mental health ambassador may only be 24 years old, but Salama’s social work has brought him before a UN Development Programme assembly to discuss the importance of mental health in the Mena region, and his digital agency, EMPWR House, has been endorsed by Harvard University.
Who is Ally Salama?
While his professional life is certainly well documented, his personal backstory remains uncharted.
Born into an upper-class family, Salama began his life from a position of undeniable power, at the top of the socioeconomic food chain, attending one of Cairo's most prestigious schools and training at its most highly regarded sporting clubs.
But when he was about 8, his father's business went bankrupt.
"That changed our life, it really did," says Salama during an intimate chat with The National. Soon after, his father moved the family to the UK with a view to working and living there, while pursuing a PhD.
It was in the UK that Salama had his first brushes with depression, as he faced serious bullying in his new school.
The move to a new country also took a heavy toll on his mother, who did not adjust well, especially after she received news that her father had been diagnosed with stage-3 cancer and given one year to live.
While Salama's stayed in the UK, Salama and his mum returned to Egypt to care for his sick grandfather, but he would go on to lose both his maternal grandparents in a span of two years.
“I have a lot of respect for my father, but we were never really that close; he was sort of emotionally unavailable, always busy with his work.”
Launching the Empathy Always Wins podcast
As he helped his mother grieve, Salama began developing traits that he describes as instrumental to the social work he is known for today: empathy, supportiveness and an aptitude for leadership.
“I see myself as a pretty strong guy, but there are things in life that will shatter you no matter what, but these are the things that make you stronger in the end,” he says.
Salama is now the host of the Empathy Always Wins podcast, which he describes as "an intersection between mental health and leadership".
His agency produces online content with an Arab audience in mind, a demographic that, because of taboos surrounding mental health, may not always be comfortable admitting they have a problem.
In his father's absence, Salama found the male support he was looking for in his family's driver, Abdel Ghany, who introduced him to a side of Egypt that many upper-class children don't get to experience. A more thrilling, dangerous side.
“Abdel Ghany has since died, which was really tough for me. He was like my dad; he was the guy I was safe with, you know,” he says.
Yet it is those experiences among Egypt's lower classes he had with Abdel Ghany that gave Salama the insight to make the content he produces today. "I love Egypt, I'm very patriotic. Everything I have been doing was aimed at making this country better," says Salama, who now splits his time living in Dubai and Toronto. Salama adds that his family's long-loved supporter, Wagida, who had been with his grandmother since before his mother was born, was also an influential figure in his life.
Mental health ambassador
Another important father figure in his life is Dr Nasser Loza, president-elect of the World Federation for Mental Health and a consulting psychiatrist at Cairo's prestigious Behman Hospital. Salama credits his professional success to Loza's mentorship.
Taking care of yourself is an important cornerstone of Salama's philosophy today, because, as he explains, he knows what it feels like to not look after your own needs, and he's intimately familiar with the problems that can arise from that.
A vital part of fending for yourself is finding healthy outlets for our negative feelings, he asserts. For Salama, it was singing that helped him through a tumultuous personal life, a hobby he began taking more seriously at aged 15, while attending high school in Canada, where he lived with his worst bouts of depression.
"I was alone, without a support system. I thought a lot about suicide during this time.”
Salama is now able to look back at those tough times with gratitude, however, because in 2016, while in Canada, he started the Break the Silence Facebook page, an anonymous platform through which Egyptians could share their mental health experiences without having to reveal their identities.
The platform was widely lauded and amassed a whopping 80,000 followers on Facebook, catapulting Salama into the spotlight.
His career went from strength to strength after that. For example, in 2019, he entered an influencer marketing campaign with EgyptAir, which amassed about one million organic views across all social platforms in under a week.
In the same year, his second campaign, #PeopleToPeople, snagged the Middle East's Best Promotional Film award from the World Tourism Organisation.
Both campaigns were collaborative efforts, and proof that Salama has come a long way from that shy, displaced child who took on more burdens than he could carry. Today, he is a charismatic leader who isn't afraid to be vulnerable.
“I am in the business of selling you back to you,” he says proudly. “Because the most daring person you can be in your life, is yourself.”