By Cassidy Swanson
For the first thing on a Thursday morning, Wellesley Dental Group is an unusually cheery place. The staff is warm and friendly, and the patients seem happy to be there – not typical for a dentist’s office. At the center of it all is Dr. Femina Ali, with her bright smile and positive outlook.
“[My staff] are my daytime family, I tell them that,’” she said.
Femina is more than a friendly boss and dentist. As Pakistani immigrant, she is part of the changing face of the town of Wellesley, an affluent and overwhelmingly white community for many years. That’s starting to change. Between 2000 and 2010, census data shows that people of Asian ancestry, particularly from eastern Asia and the Indian subcontinent, shot up from 6 percent to 10 percent of the total population – a significant change in a town of 28,000.
But Femina, who has lived in Wellesley for 16 years, is much more than a representative of demographic change in the community. She is an agent of commitment and change as well. After starting as a volunteer at her children’s elementary school, today she is an active volunteer in many aspects of community life from A to Z, serving on 20 committees and fundraising events each year.
“[Femina] doesn’t seem to be complete unless she is heavily engrossed in other town-wide projects,” said Mary Bowers, of the Council on Aging, where Femina donates dental service to elderly in need. “She never ceases to amaze me with her energy and resolve to make this place a better place while she is on this good earth.”
It’s a role, she conceded, that isn’t always easy for immigrant families who some still see as outsiders in this tight-knit community. While Femina says she did not feel her family was viewed this way, there was still a learning curve for adjusting to life in America.
Femina grew up in Karachi, Pakistan, and attended dental school at De’Montmorency College of Dentistry in Lahore. There she met her husband, Dr. Ejaz Ali. The Alis graduated in 1982 and moved to the United States in 1987 with the goal of opening their own dentistry practice. They had a daughter, Zarah, in 1988, and a son, Zann, in 1990.
“We came here in pursuit of higher education, in pursuit of the American dream,” she said. “But now, this is home to me.”
The Alis lived their first few years in the United States in Indiana and Florida, supporting their family by working odd jobs. Though both Drs. Ali had completed dental school in Pakistan, they could not practice in the United States without completing another dental program here.
When Ejaz was accepted into Tufts Dental School, the family moved to Malden. He graduated in 1994, and Femina started at Tufts shortly after in 1995.
“Tufts has an international students program, so we were able to do advanced placement, so we did two years of schooling [each] there,” she said. “I think Tufts prepared us really well for practicing dentistry in the United States.”
Being at Tufts also brought the Alis to the state they grew to know and love.
“Massachusetts grew on us,” she said. “We cannot leave Massachusetts now, we are so spoiled [here]. This is the best place to live, I think, in the United States.”
When Femina graduated in 1997, the opportunity to start their own practice became available. The Alis moved to Wellesley, where they opened Wellesley Dental Group, and they haven’t looked back since.
Despite Wellesley not being a diverse town, Femina said she felt accepted immediately.
“Did I ever feel any discrimination in this [community]? Not at all,” she said.
“Actually, everyone welcomed us. Neighbors brought cookies to my home, knowing that we are dark-skinned, from a different background, [that] we speak in a different way with our accent.”
She joked that the only people to discriminate against her and her husband were their children, who would make fun of their accents.
Even though she felt welcome right away, making a home in a new town was still difficult. Femina credits Ejaz for helping her through the adjustment period.
“My husband is my rock,” she said. “He is the best person that you could ever get to know…[We come] from a culture where women are taking mostly the backstage, supporting men and staying at home…He pushes me in the front.”
With her husband’s support and a successful practice, by the time Zann and Zarah were in school, Femina felt she could give back to the Wellesley community. That’s when she was bitten by the volunteering bug.
“I started enjoying it, and then I took on more and more responsibility,” she said. “One thing led to another, and by the time [my kids] got to high school, I was serving as the president of the [Parent Teacher Student Organization]. It was a big commitment. It is like taking another full-time job. But at that time, the kids were older, my practice was established, I had more flexibility with my time. I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Today, Femina is involved with more than 20 different organizations, annual events and fundraisers in the town of Wellesley. She serves as the president of the Women’s Business Network, a board member of the Wellesley Chamber of Commerce, a mentor for the Wellesley College Pre-Dental Society, a board member of the Wellesley Hills Junior Women’s Club, a founding member of the Fund for Wellesley, and many other positions. She also started a highly successful annual candy drive after Halloween, in which all the candy is sent in care packages to soldiers serving overseas.
“You just feel like you get a lot back by giving back,” she said. “Since I am part of all different organizations in town, I enjoy that relationship part, that I can cultivate a relationship with different organizations.”
She also makes an effort to reach out to those who are new in town, as she once was.
“International dentists coming in [to the area], mostly from Pakistan and India, they’ll reach out to me…and we’ll talk about how we got started, and if I could mentor and help them to fit in the community better – things that I learned the hard way,” she said.”
Femina and Ejaz are also involved with the Wellesley Newcomers Club, an outreach organization for new residents.
“Just this past weekend, we met someone through Newcomers Club…from India,” she said. “We hosted them in our home to make them feel welcome. They were in an apartment, now they’ve bought a home and they’re settled in, so they invited us over.”
Femina said she has seen many other immigrants from Asian countries getting involved in the community, and doesn’t believe that any sort of cultural barrier or apathy keeps foreigners from fully integrating; it just takes a little time for some.
“Sometimes it is because you are new to town – you could be Asian-American, or just American,” she said. “You have to get through survival mode first, getting the kids settled in school, and then once you’re settled in, you [say], ‘What can I do to give back to the community?’”
Through her volunteer work, Femina has earned the respect and friendship of many. The Rev. Dr. Bonnie Jelinek, pastor at the Wellesley Hills Congregational Church, served with Femina on the Wellesley High School PTSO, and says Femina is “a woman of incredible integrity.”
“She comes up with ideas that are phenomenal,” Jelinek said. “She was just very, very good about having excellent communication between the parents and the school. She loves her community so much, and she’ll do anything she can to help it and advance it.”
Gail Van Kleeck, one of Femina’s colleagues in the Women’s Business Network, said Femina has been a great leader for the organization.
“I think she’s really good team player,” Van Kleeck said. “She does not seek the limelight; she encourages people. She is always there to affirm people. [That is] especially rare in a powerful woman. She is gracious and she is engaging and she is appreciative.”
Zarah is currently studying dentistry at Tufts, and the Alis hope to pass the practice onto their daughter when they retire. Ejaz said they would like to travel to developing countries and donate dental services to people in need.
“This way, we can travel, we can have fun, and we can take dentistry from the United States and spread it around the world,” he said.
But until then, Femina said, she still has a lot to do in Wellesley.
“This town has given me so much,” she said. “This town has give me a place to live, a place to work, a very friendly community…This town has given good education to my kids…So whatever I do for my town, it’s not enough. I wish I had more time.”
(Cassidy Swanson is an Emerson College journalism graduate student who is focusing on Wellesley for a school project. We thank her for contributing to The Swellesley Report.)