Medical dramas are a dime a dozen on TV. You can probably picture one now: scenes of hospital gurneys being rushed into operating rooms, workplace romances, that type of thing.
But a new Canadian series — now airing to an American audience Tuesdays on NBC — puts a fresh spin on the genre.
“Transplant” follows a young Syrian refugee and doctor who resettles in Canada. While working at a hospital in Toronto, he’s also creating a new life for himself and his younger sister.
Actor Hamza Haq is the star of “Transplant.” He joined The World's host Marco Werman from Toronto.
Marco Werman: Tell us about your character, Dr. Bashir Hamed. When we first meet him, he’s working in Toronto at a restaurant. Where is he in his life when the series begins, what’s his story?
Hamza Haq: When we open on it, we see the story that is all too common in immigrant and refugee circles, which is that someone who’s highly qualified but their accreditation or qualifications don’t transfer over and they find themselves working any job that they can. So, you have this trauma surgeon making shawarmas and serving sandwiches trying to make ends meet.
So, we open on young Bashir Hamed, sweaty, good looking, making sandwiches, and then a truck comes careening into the restaurant and destroys everything. It’s absolute chaos. And out of the ashes rises our once-line-cook Bashir who reveals he’s actually a very skilled and trained trauma surgeon who ends up saving all these peoples’ lives. Through that, he’s given an opportunity to redo his residency and prove himself as a skilled doctor — as the skilled doctor that he is.
As the series goes on, we see Dr. Hamed dealing with things that viewers might not usually see in a medical drama: like microaggressions at work, the hospital lawyer drills him about not having his medical school transcripts even though he can’t get them because they’re in Syria. What do you think sets this show apart from other medical dramas?
There're immigrants and refugees in every show that we see, and they’re never given the spotlight. The difference here is you actually see a different dimension to a character you may have seen in other shows, but you never get to go home with them. We explore things on this show that are foreign to a lot of people because they’ve not been accurately represented in mainstream media.
Apparently, you worked pretty closely with the show’s creator and runner Joseph Kay to shape your role, informed, in part, by your own experience immigrating to Canada from Saudi Arabia as a kid. Tell us about that and what parts of that experience you wanted Kay to hew close to.
I was really fortunate, I had a preexisting relationship with Joseph — we worked together on another show, created a character who was a Pakistani postdoctoral student pursuing his PhD in Montreal. So, we built that character together. So, when he had this initial concept of “Transplant,” he invited me to a character consultant, just to talk about my experience of — you know I’m not a doctor, I’m not a refugee — but with me, it was more about a behavioral thing and this kind of feeling of being the “other,” which I’m very familiar with, just being a person of color in North America.
There’s this kind of filter that you have to put on your life or rather, that everybody puts on your life, as well. So, just to inject that feeling and that tension and that emotion into the story, the fact that Joseph gave me the opportunity to do that, it was great. Then, a couple of months went by, and they did the gauntlet of auditions and everything and I was fortunate enough to land the role afterward.
There has been some criticism of the show for telling the stories of Syrian refugees, but not being represented by Syrian actors. Is that a concern for you and what is the show doing to make sure it’s representing these stories accurately?
It is a concern, yes. I’m very outspoken about the fact that I know I’m not a Syrian. It should have been a Syrian person to play it, you know? There’s an entire team of consultants to make sure we’re trying to tell this story accurately. I speak with them on a weekly basis. Also, there's a character named Saleh, a character played by Elie Shankji.
He’s playing a White Helmet on the show. He was a Syrian refugee, he had to leave in 2011, he lived in Lebanon for a while and has been living in Québec ever since.
I know I’m never going to be a Syrian refugee. I’m grateful I didn’t have to experience that. What these people went through is horrible. So, the fact that I’m involved at all in bringing light to their story and helping out where I can and hopefully creating opportunities for more people who have been affected by this crisis more directly on future seasons or on future shows, I’m grateful for that. We’re not exactly where we should be, but we’re getting there and I believe this show is a step in the right direction.
So, “Transplant” debuted in Canada, but is now being watched by American audiences; it’s on NBC. How is it being received and what do you hope American viewers will appreciate about the show?
For anybody who finds themselves on the side where they think immigrants and refugees and people of color are anything other than just people like you and me or like anybody else just trying to do their best, I really hope they can watch a show like this and be like “All right man, we’re not all so different, we’re all just trying to take care of our families and make ends meet.”
And I hope a lot of Americans watch it and notice how they never talk about medical bills on this show — because it’s not a thing here. So, I hope it inspires some kind of universal health care policy as well. Everybody should have that.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.