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Strength in what remains

Tracy Kidder

Big events are best told through small stories. At least that’s the approach author Tracy Kidder took for his latest book, Strength is What Remains, which details the journey of a genocide survivor from Burundi, Africa to Columbia University medical school.

Kidder has been called a “purposive write,” one who analyzes and exposes larger issues and proposes solutions, but he says his focus is more modest—the individual. “I have a hard time bending my own mind around generalizations. Often all I can think of are the exceptions,” he said to a crowd of nearly 100 at Northwestern University Wednesday as part of the One Book One Northwestern initiative. “Stories can be windows into enormity,” he added.

Kidder met Deogratias by chance and was struck by the Burundian man’s remarkable story of survival and perseverance. Deogratias narrowly escaped death by leaving his door open—his would-be killers assumed he had fled—and through a mix of luck and sheer tenacity he arrived at JFK airport with $200 and a Visa under false pretenses. After eking out an existence delivering groceries and sleeping on benches in Central Park, he encountered an ex-nun who found a home for him. Less than two years after his perilous escape from Africa, Deogratias enrolled at Columbia University. He was later accepted into medical school and eventually returned to Burundi to open a clinic and Village Health Works, a collaborative health organization of Kigutu villagers and Americans.

Kidder said Deogratias’ story stirred a sense of wonder in him about the people he encountered. “I hoped that I could never again look at anonymous faces in quite the same way, particularly the faces of people with foreign accents,” he said. “Who are they really? What memories and dreams do they carry? ”

Although Kidder is hesitant to define what the book is, he’s very clear on what it’s not. It’s not simply another story about Africa, nor does it intend to cast Burundi in an exotic light; instead, he wanted to humanize the country.

The book touches on many topics: civil war and genocide; courage and endurance; the generosity of strangers; and memory. However, the truths about these subjects are widely known and Kidder wanted his readers to explore these elements, not as truisms, but as experiences through Deogratias, he said.

And for Kidder stories are more than words on a page. He believes they have the power to move people to empathy, a necessary first step in spurring people to action to ameliorate suffering.

Although Kidder prefers to keep a temporal separation between his writing and activism, he was moved by what he observed when he accompanied Deogratias to the future clinic site in 2006. While speaking to a crowd of Kigutu villagers, he promised to do everything possible to get the clinic built. He eventually donated some of his own money to help speed the project along.

However, Kidder modestly downplays any suggestion that his writing has inspired others to take action. After a woman in the audience credited his book with determining her daughter’s career path, he replied: “I’m first of all a writer, and I don’t set out to tell these stories to do a good deed. If they do, in fact, do a good deed, then I can’t take credit for it.”

But Kidder is willing to acknowledge that his writing aims for a higher purpose.

“What I aspire to is art,” he said. “And art has the great power to transform the experience of suffering and injustice into something beautiful.”

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Cross the border, and your human rights may stay behind

(from left to right): Susan Gzesh, Maureen Lynch, Howard Adelman, Deborah Anker

Scholars and students from around the nation and beyond joined to discuss the issue of migration within the context of human rights. As part of Northwestern University’s Conference on Human Rights, the topic at Friday’s forum was: Defining Forced Migration.

“Refugee law define a refugee as a person with a well founded fear of persecution,” said Deborah Anker, a professor of law at Harvard University and director of the Harvard Immigration and Refugee Clinic.

But the all too common problem is that once refugees cross international borders into a country where they do not hold citizenship, they are not always treated like human beings, a notion Anker argues vehemently against.

“Once refugees are outside their country, they are owed certain rights by the refugee convention,” she said.

Anker was referring to the fact that refugee law is an international law that grants every human fundamental rights – independent of where they are in the world.

“Overwhelmingly, refugees are products of war,” said Howard Adelman, a former professor of philosophy at York University in Toronto and founder of York’s Centre for Refugee Studies.

Adelman gave the example of the thousands of Christians who fled Iraq due to persecution because of their religious beliefs. While many of them may have hopes of returning to their home country, he said, in practical matters though, returning could be very difficult.

Adelman introduced the concept of LIMS (Persons In Limbo): they cannot live in their own country, but other countries won’t take them in either. Or, even worse, the country in which they were born may not recognize them as citizens. So where does such a person call home? Without citizenship anywhere, they are deprived of basic levels of assistance and structure provided by governments.

Adelman said that as a low figure, there are about 14 million stateless people around the world. A stateless person is one that does not hold citizenship within any recognized state.

While the panelists all agreed that something has to be done, no immediate grandiose solution was given. But Adelman touched upon a humanitarian quick fix: “If we just divide up the game, and everyone took some of them, we could solve the problem – but that’s not likely to happen,” he said.

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Good manners and common sense: Charity founder addresses Feinberg students at benefit for Pakistani flood victims

Neal Ball, Founder and Honorary Chair, American Refugee Committee and Terry Long, Department of Family and Community Medicine, Feinberg School of Medicine

Neal Ball, founder and honorary chair of the American Refugee Committee, spoke to more than 30 students and faculty at the Feinberg School of Medicine as part of a benefit to raise funds for Pakistani flood victims Friday.

Twenty million Pakistanis were directly affected by the flooding last summer, and large swaths of farmland are still under water, according to event coordinator Paul Battone, a Feinberg medical student.  The 24-year-old president of the Student Senate said lingering floodwater would affect next year’s harvest and exacerbate the disaster.

Ball’s charity emerged from another disaster in the Eastern hemisphere more than thirty years ago.

After sponsoring a Vietnam War refugee from Laos, Ball set about trying to find the boy’s family.  The search took Ball on a tour of refugee camps in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Thailand.

The poor conditions in the camps motivated Ball to address the plight of refugees—an effort that culminated in the present-day American Refugee Committee.

Ball pulled from his experiences with the charity to explain how humanitarian outreach can make a difference and to point out obstacles along the way.

“Good manners and common sense. That’s what I think humanitarianism is,” Ball said when asked to define the term.

But life often complicates simple and sound advice.

Ronak Vashi, a Feinberg medical student, said people are often consumed by their everyday lives at the expense of what’s happening in the world around them. But she’s optimistic that small acts can have an impact.

“People think that you have to do a lot to make a difference, but there’s more to be said for a larger number of people each doing a smaller part to help a bigger cause,” she added.

It was this same lack of attention that prompted Battone to coordinate the benefit with first-year medical students Matthew Hire and Alex Sidlak.

“Truthfully I’d heard of the disaster in Pakistan, but I didn’t know too much about it,” he said.

Battone wasn’t alone. After researching the issue for the Feinberg Student Senate at the request of a professor, he noticed knowledge about the flood was limited.

Pakistani student Hira Bai said she was also surprised at the limited US outreach, especially in light of American support for the country in other areas.

”We should all just be more aware of our international community,” she said.

Battone partnered with Northwestern’s Center for Global Health and the South Asian Medical Student Association to host Friday’s benefit to raise awareness and funds for flood victims.  He also contacted local Pakistani restaurants to contribute food for the occasion.  Through donations the benefit raised $550 for Pakistani flood victims.

While some might argue that a small gathering in Chicago might not make a difference in a region ravaged by flood waters, Ball would disagree.

“No matter how big the problem is or how far away, don’t be shy about it,” Ball said.  “It’s never too big or too distant to give help.”

Not all charities are created equal.  Make your donations count with Neal Ball’s suggestions:

  • Look for transparency and accountability. Find a charity willing to share information about their work.
  • Find the shortest line between need and aid. Middlemen can complicate things.
  • Put your charity to the test with Charity Navigator, an independent, online evaluator.
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Kidneys for sale? Sherine Hamdy discusses her new book on Egypt’s ethical debate over organ transplantation

How much is a kidney worth? According to Sherine Hamdy, a Brown University anthropologist, the going rate in Egypt circa 2006 was approximately $5000.

It might not sound like much, but in a country where poverty is high, organ traffickers are persuasive and poor preventative care raises demand—the choice is complicated.

Enter Islam into the equation and you’ve got what amounts to a series of puzzles, according to Hamdy.

Sherine Hamdy, Assistant Professor of Anthropoloy, Brown University

Hamdy set about tackling these in her new book, “Our Bodies Belong to God: Bioethics, Islam and Organ Transplants in Egypt.”

More than thirty Northwestern students and faculty trudged through several inches of snow Tuesday evening to hear about Hamdy’s research in a land known for its broiling sunshine, magnificent  pyramids and a growing underground industry—organ transplantation.

Egyptians are ambivalent on the subject of organ transplantation, Hamdy explained.

While Islamic leaders wield substantial influence, Egyptians also rely on their personal experiences to guide their religious conclusions on the subject.

Hamdy illustrated this through the experience of Dr. Kotb, a successful transplant surgeon who later renounced his profession as haraam, or forbidden, by his Islamic beliefs.

She speculated Kobt’s change of heart wasn’t a sudden religious epiphany, but a broadening of Kobt’s perspective.  As a doctor he was compelled to end his patients’ suffering.  Later he started to ask the larger questions.

The answers he found were disturbing.  He saw the sometimes devastating effects of organ transplant on living donors and the potential for exploitation of the poor—factors which likely influenced his views on the subject, Hamdy said.

But many Westerners and upper-class Egyptians continue to fault Islam as the road block to open dialogue on organ transplantation.

“It’s not about a religious constraint to potential benefits of the biotechnology, it’s about whether there actually are benefits to the biotechnology that outweigh the costs,” she said.

The situation worsened in 2006 when the World Health Organization flagged Egypt as having one of the highest rates of organ trafficking in the world, Hamdy said.

This led to a government crackdown on organ transplantations, pushing the practice further underground and stilting conversations of creating a commercial market.

“Talk of regulating the market is so taboo that the dialogue is closed,” Hamdy said.

Although initially uncomfortable with commercializing organ transplantation, Hamdy said she advocates acknowledging the market to make it less hostile.

Hamdy’s words resonated with Northwestern anthropology and global health student Tamon Oshimo, 22.

“She mentioned something that most people agree with, that you can’t have an absolutist stance, but I like that she had a compelling argument for it as well.”

Hamdy was also hopeful.  She turned attention to Mansoura, a devout Muslim city 77 miles north of Cairo, which boasts the most effective kidney center in the nation and completes 80 transplants each year.

“If the medical rates get better, then the market might change,” she said.

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