Beating Cancer, Saving Lives, & Founding Brigade of Mercy

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Ambreen Rizvi had lived a full life.

She had a successful career in risk management for major financial services companies. She was a mother of three. She had traveled through the world after growing up in Paris.

But everything felt different after she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer six years ago. Rizvi went through the required treatments and surgery. She beat cancer. It was a relief. But things felt off. Something was missing from life.

“After cancer, I felt like I needed more purpose,” says Rizvi, who lives in McLean, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, D.C. “It felt like a repurposing. I got a life coach. I thought about what would fulfill me. My goals. My passions.”

The answer, she realized, was helping others. Rizvi enrolled in courses in nonprofit management. With the encouragement of her mentor — who was also her manager — she quit her job and launched head-first into creating her own nonprofit.

Brigade of Mercy was born in 2018. 

The small organization — a volunteer board and staff headquartered in Rizvi’s home office — has the tagline “compassion without borders.” It runs volunteer efforts anywhere from Northern Virginia to the Middle East, Central America, the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia. Its first foray in its founding year was when Rizvi and volunteers collected backpacks and stuffed them with school supplies to hand out to local kids.

One of Brigade of Mercy’s current projects is assisting newly arrived Afghan refugees who have resettled in the Washington, D.C., suburbs. The team provides donated clothes, hygiene products, toys, phone chargers, household goods, and other needed products. So far, over 200 families have received help. 

“It’s amazing what a toothbrush can do,” says Rizvi. 

“We take these things for granted. Every day we have access to clean water, but many people don’t. Even people in our own country.”

From food pantries in an elementary school. 

Another effort is currently at work in Hoffman-Boston Elementary School in Arlington County. Brigade of Mercy volunteers have created a food pantry to provide nonperishable goods — from dried pasta to canned vegetables — to students from low-income families.

To sending supplies to an orphanage in Africa.

Internationally, Brigade of Mercy is currently taking donations for Sonnia House. This orphanage in Sierra Leone provides a safe home for more than 30 children, and covers food, shelter, and educational costs for 120 additional vulnerable kids who do not live in the orphanage.

And providing therapies to children with disabilities in Jordan.

In Amman, Jordan, Rizvi’s group currently works with the Al Amal Center, an educational site that offers training to dozens of children with learning disabilities and autism by using occupational and physical therapies. This also includes classes on sensory, motor, and physical skills. Brigade of Mercy collects and donates educational goods for the center.

“That’s just a sampling,” says Rizvi, who hopes to continue to expand the volunteer efforts. “We don’t pay anybody to work for us. We have zero operational costs. That’s because it’s so important to be generous and spend any resources we have on how to help others locally and abroad.”

Rizvi says her take on volunteerism stems in part from her upbringing.

“When I was growing up, my parents donated a lot to charity,” Rizvi says. “When I was traveling as a child, my father was posted at Interpol, and I was able to accompany him on some of his missions in third-world nations. Together, charity and travel taught me that there are so many people around the world who are vulnerable and in need.”

Finding ways to make a difference "just down the street."

The local and global focus of Brigade of Mercy also has origins in her international upbringing, Rizvi says. “Many faiths teach you to first take care of your own family, then to take care of your neighbors,” Rizvi says. “Living in the U.S., it’s very easy to look outside the country and see poverty and need in other parts of the world. But there’s so much happening right here in all of our backyards. You don’t need to hop on a plane. You just have to go down the street.”

Tags: Entrepreneur, Volunteering, wellness

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Written By

JD Turner

JD Turner is a writer and puppy parent based in Los Angeles. See Full Bio

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