He escaped civil war as a child. Now, he’s dedicating his life to helping others

Landry Kalembo
After growing up in poverty, living in a foreign country as a refugee, and taking care of his father, who was undergoing chemotherapy, recent graduate Landry Kalembo realized that a career in population health was for him.
Landry Kalembo (left) and research colleague Dejan Bojic (right) completing data analysis in a lab at Roger Guindon Hall.
Landry presenting his Basic Military Qualification certificate to his father who could not make it to his graduation due to illness (August 2019).

Landry Kalembo realized early on that a future in population and public health was his calling. “Growing up, I was constantly exposed to people in need of help, people living in poverty and people suffering from all kinds of tropical illnesses that could otherwise be controlled,” says Landry, who will be graduating from the Faculty of Health Sciences this spring.

“I’m interested in the ‘developmental origins of health and diseases,’ a paradigm known as DOHaD, whereby negative environmental exposures or specific windows of vulnerability in someone’s life can have long-term effects on their health and the health of their offspring,” he says. “So, rather than solve one case at a time, I want to do research that could help a thousand people at a time.”

A language whiz

Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Landry and his family relocated to Uganda when he was 10 years old to escape civil war. He spent a year learning English in an adult refugee school because his family couldn’t afford the costs of education. But his affinity for languages soon landed him a scholarship to attend classes in the regular school system.

“Congo was a Belgian colony, so I speak Swahili and learned French as a second language,” he says. “Uganda was a British colony, so I had to learn English too. I spoke four languages by the time I was 12 years old. I became the first Jesuit Refugee Service-sponsored student to attend a regular primary school in Kampala. There was even an article written about me, suggesting that in 10 years I would become a scientist or a businessman. That’s something that has inspired me for years.”

A new beginning in Canada

At 16 years old, Landry, his parents and his eight siblings immigrated to Canada, after living in Uganda for six years. While attending high school in Ottawa, he became a regular volunteer at the Parkdale Food Centre, and now sits on its board.

“As newcomers to Canada, we didn’t have a lot of money, and sometimes we needed help getting food,” he says. “We used to go to the food bank there, and I remember Karen Secord, the director, was impressed with my dad. She was like, ‘You should teach me French, and you should bring your kids around.’ I like to talk, so being in that environment was great, and I’ve been volunteering at the food centre ever since.”

A future in population health

Today, Landry holds a bilingual Honours Bachelor of Health Sciences, focusing on courses in population and public health. He’ll be among the graduating class of spring 2021.

He’s also an incoming University of Ottawa MSc. candidate, whose thesis will look at food insecurity, malnutrition and maternal-offspring health outcomes in pregnant opioid users in the Ottawa region.

“I have always been intrigued by how people make sense of underlying causes of diseases, and I think it’s imperative to explore global health challenges and the factors that affect well-being in order to come up with sustainable solutions,” he says. “We need to move from a curative system to a more preventative system. That means taking action at an earlier age, before we have long-term effects on our population.”

Over the years, Landry has volunteered at The Ottawa Hospital, worked on projects with the Youth Services Bureau of Ottawa and performed spoken word poetry about mental health and racial injustice at various local and university events.

In July 2020, Landry founded the Kalembo Foundation, a not-for-profit looking to improve the health and education of young people, seniors and vulnerable individuals living in Central and East Africa that have been affected by civil wars, conflict, disease or poverty.

He’s also been an active member of the Canadian Armed Forces Reserves since 2018. He trained as an army communication and information systems specialist and hopes to be trained as a combat medic.

“I learned a lot while getting my Basic Military Qualifications: leadership, discipline, teamwork, courage and working in extreme environments under pressure,” says Landry. “Those skills helped me as a student, and perhaps they influenced my little brother David to become a police officer. He is now a constable with Ottawa Police Services, and I’m so proud of him.”

In his second year of university, Landry lost his father to cancer. Before he passed, Landry spent a lot of time by his side, taking care of him while he underwent chemotherapy.

“Spending lots of time in a hospital, being constantly exposed to people in need of medical attention and personally experiencing insecurities due to poverty — these things pushed me towards a career in health care and have greatly influenced who I am,” he says.

Finding the balance

Asked how he made time for it all, Landry says it was all about finding a system that worked for him. Most of his university routine consisted of morning classes, followed by playing basketball with his friends, going to the gym and to salsa club in the afternoon, and doing the bulk of this studying in the evening.

“For me, that was very healthy,” he says. “I found a balance between fun and my studies and working towards my goals. It worked for me. That’s the advice I would give younger students: figure out what works for you, what’s healthy for you.”