The Guelph Mercury, February 10, 2011
By Drew Halfnight
GUELPH — He has spoken before the United Nations Security Council, the World Health Organization, the Norwegian Nobel Committee and several national parliaments.
On Thursday, one of the world’s foremost humanitarians added another esteemed audience to his resumé, addressing students at Bishop Macdonell Catholic High School in Guelph.
Dr. James Orbinski, former president of Doctors Without Borders, gave a philosophical speech in which he recommended compassion and wisdom as tools for success in life.
“How do you use this gift, this precious life you have, to engage the world?” he pondered aloud in front of 350 uniformed students. “How do you use your mind, your time and your energy in a way that will help?”
Orbinski, who holds several faculty and board positions at the University of Toronto, drove to Guelph to accept the school’s Celtic Courage Award for Social Justice.
English teacher Jeff Warner, staff adviser for the school’s social justice group Celtics Without Borders — Celtics is the school’s team moniker — said the award was “for people who are leaders in making the world a more equitable place.”
Orbinski, a veteran of some of the world’s most disturbing and complex humanitarian emergencies, served as a medical co-ordinator for Doctors Without Borders in Somalia during the civil war and famine of 1992-93, and Zaire during the refugee crisis of 1996-97.
Most famously, he was head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide.
“I’m often asked, ‘How can you be so positive?’ ” he said during the speech. “My answer is very simple. I know exactly what we’re capable of as human beings. I know exactly what happens when one, some, a few, many, or all stand silent.”
Orbinski described a hospital in Malawi where children, most of whom had HIV/AIDS, spilled out of beds, down hallways and into the yard.
“There were 150 kids crammed into a hospital designed for 30,” he said, and a single nurse was looking after them.
“I felt a profound sense of disquiet. How is this even possible at the start of the 21st century?”
It was there at Zomba Central Hospital that he came up with the idea for his three-year-old charity, Dignitas International, which provides solutions to hospitals with limited resources in the developing world.
“It’s your world,” he said Thursday in closing. “You’re not preparing for tomorrow. It’s your world today.”
During a question-and-answer session, Grade 12 student Francesca Starr asked how aid workers cope during crises. Orbinski replied:
“There’s never enough effort to overcome all that needs to be done. Do what is in front of you.”
“How do you still believe in God?” another student asked.
“My understanding of God has changed a lot since high school,” Orbinski said, adding his perspective mirrors that of Saint Ignatius, whom he paraphrased: “Pray as if everything depends on God, but act as if everything depends on you.”
Later in the afternoon, Orbinski and 16 members of Celtics Without Borders retired to the school’s dim chapel for an intimate chat. Several students clutched his book, An Imperfect Offering, which is on their reading list for theology class, as Orbinski explained what it’s like trying to help starved Rwandans “who don’t even have the will to pick up a spoon.”
“As an aid worker, you’re not a soldier, and you’re not a saint,” he said.
Students and staff plan to spend next week on a refugee’s diet of 2,100 calories a day, “the equivalent of six cups of corn meal, basically,” Warner said, raising money for Dignitas.
“We have a very engaged, socially aware, conscious student body,” he added. “And we put it into practice. We do things with that.”
In the five years since its founding, Celtics Without Borders has raised more than $140,000 for various causes, Warner said.