What genre could be more perfect for delivering a message about being wary of our first impressions – and to keep asking questions and listening – than a classic medical drama? For years, medical dramas have been emphasising how important it is to get the whole story, for reminding us that people lie (and explaining why), and telling us that treating people a certain way based on an assumption can be deadly.

In its first action-packed episode, new Universal (DStv 117) medical drama series Transplant sets up both its audience and its characters to jump to all sorts of conclusions. And it uses that to both tell an exciting hospital-based story and to expose our assumptions about immigrants (both documented and undocumented) and refugees.

Transplant’s story puts our brains through a scanner to spot those lurking mental cancers that have taken root through years of dehumanising TV shows and political fearmongering that have linked immigrants – especially darker-skinned immigrants – with terrorism, violent crime and drugs.

The series opens at night in a dingy-looking Syrian restaurant, where a sweaty cook looks shifty as he receives a small, newspaper-wrapped package from a colleague. It’s shot the way that a cop show would shoot a drug deal, or a spy show would film a terrorist cell at work. Both later talk to each other critically about the restaurant’s American-sounding customers’ wasteful habits. The entire introduction is shot to provoke suspicion about the cook and his intentions.

Moments later, everything changes in a shower of glass, flame and noise. Amid the confusion we see the cook desperately trying to save lives. And then, throughout the entire rest of the episode, we have to live through the frustration of having everyone either leaping to conclusions about this man, or refuse to listen to him.

While the end of the first episode sets us up for telling a different, more familiar sort of story about a brilliant doctor and his new hospital colleagues, it also lays the foundations for looking at the struggles of being forced to make a life-or-death decision to leave one life behind and start another in a strange and distant country. A for that package? Watch and find out.

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I was a stranger

Transplant is taking its storytelling responsibilities seriously. In fact, the series’ lead, Hamza Haq (who immigrated from Saudi Arabia to Canada with his Pakistani-born parents when he was 9 years old), was initially brought in as a character consultant, to talk to the writing team about his personal experiences being a brown-skinned Muslim man in Canada and facing daily micro-aggressions based on that. “I was probably halfway through that initial meeting when I said, ‘Oh, by the way, I hope that you know that I’m interested [in this role].’ They were very clear about the fact that it was a consultant job and were not offering an acting part,” he admits.

Additionally, the show brought in real-life Syrian refugees to consult on Bash’s backstory and those within his immigrant community in Canada. “They had built a nice pool of about five to six Syrian refugee consultants, whom I had conversations with, and I was given readings and documentaries to watch. I have a dialect coach as well as a personal trainer who are refugees from Aleppo and I talk with them about their experiences,” says Hamza. “Normally, when we see these types of stories on television, they tell them as individuals coming from war-torn countries and the ‘life is so hard’ aspect. But the reality is, they're not sitting around talking about how hard their lives are. They’re just trying to thrive, survive and live like everyone else. It was beautiful to get that perspective because I couldn’t relate to going through anything like that.”

Hamza notes that while basic racial issues they confront might be similar, there are important differences to understand between the experience of a voluntary immigrant, and that of a refugee. “I was never forced to leave – my parents made a calculated decision to move to Canada, whereas Bash sort of landed there and had to figure it out. It's a difference between going skydiving or being thrown out of a plane and having to find your parachute on the way down,” he explains.

Meet the York Memorial Hospital team

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Dr. Bashir “Bash” Hamed (Hamza Haq)

Syrian refugee Dr. Hamed has been living in Canada and working as a cook for the past 2 years while struggling to navigate the administrative red tape (involving time-consuming and expensive re-training) preventing him from practicing as a doctor. As the series begins, he gets a second chance when he starts repeating his residency in the emergency department of York Memorial. While Dr. Hamed is soft-spoken and thoughtful, he has a tendency to neglect himself while he focuses on everyone else around him. He’s also a pragmatic rule breaker, which could lead him into big trouble at the hospital. At home, “Bash” is responsible for his little sister, Amira, but they’re both still deeply affected by the events in their past – which Bashir seems as desperate to run away from as he is determined to run right into danger. Bash and Amir are having to learn to work through a world full of instability and uncertainties.


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Amira Hamed (Sirena Gulamgaus)

12-year-old Amira has survived a literal warzone, and while she’s been thrown in the deep-end in her new country, she’s starting to find her way round and figure out how things work. She’s independent, determined, and she’d like for her big brother to stop worrying about her the whole time. But Bash’s new job is going to place even more pressure on their home lives. And while Amira and Bash are both orphans, Amira knows that there are some things about their past that he’s hiding from her and as time goes on, she’ll start to resent that.


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Dr. Magalie “Mags” Leblanc (Laurence Leboeuf)

Dr. Mags, the emergency medicine resident, puts work first, family and friends a very distant last. While she’s kind and empathetic, she’s also a perfectionist who’s constantly at war – within herself – between the split-second decision making needed in the emergency department, and her tendency to be a constantly questioning perfectionist. Bash’s rule breaking is going to send her for a loop.


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Dr. Jed Bishop (John Hannah)

Sharp-eyed and unpleasable Chief of Emergency Medicine Dr. Bishop has his staff and interns jumping. He’s a tough taskmaster and teacher, but the emergency room is a tough environment, and he can’t have any of his doctors cracking under pressure when a life is on the line. In Bash, he finds the brilliant young protégé of his dreams, but the circumstances of their second meeting have him wondering if he needs to improve his work-life balance to at least include a little life.


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Dr. Theo Hunter (Jim Watson)

Being around Dr. Hamed soon makes Dr. Hunter realise that he has spent his life playing it safe. He’s conducting his fellowship in paediatric emergency medicine at York Memorial and is very much a fish out of water in Toronto. Sweet natured, funny Dr. Hunter is a small-town boy from a religious family. And he’s still split between the rural and urban life, since his beloved wife and daughters live out in his hometown of Sudbury, while he works in the city. He commutes home to send time with them regularly.


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Dr. June Curtis (Ayisha Issa)

You know your task-oriented surgeon who loves her job but isn’t into getting touchy-feely with patients? This is her. Tight-lipped surgical resident Dr. Curtis is laser focussed on her job and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. She has a dry wit and tends to fall on the brutal side of being brutally honest. Even in this day and age, Dr. Curtis is up against the boys’ club attitude of most of her fellow surgical residents, and constantly out to prove herself. But she’s starting to wonder if she’s really that much of a lone wolf, or if there’s something to be said for human connection after all.


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Head ER Nurse Claire Malone (Torri Higginson)

Witty and self-assured Head Nurse Malone is one of the only staff who’ll dare to confront Dr. Bishop and put him in his place. She knows her job and her hospital, and she does have her suspicions that taking a drill bit to the skull might have an impact on Dr. Bishop’s behaviour and decision-making abilities. But while Nurse Malone is a tough nut, she is observant, too, and she soon starts to notice and respect Dr. Hamed for his skill and character.


Watch Transplant S1 from Monday, 30 November on Universal (DStv 117) 20:00 

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