Physician responsible for 27,000 Darfur refugees visits Monterey.
Thursday, September 27, 2007
Bombs fell, blood ran, babies died. For the genocide survivors and aid workers at the Oure Cassoni refugee camp in Chad, just three miles from the border of a still-burning Darfur, Sudan, this was the reality they knew, and the one they ran from to reach the camp’s fragile safety. But that reality won’t be Dr. Ashis Brahma’s focus when he visits the Peninsula to share his experience as the physician responsible for the health of the 27,000 refugees who lived at Oure Cassoni. Instead, the lively Netherlands native will focus on the strength of character he saw in the face of racist murder carried by government plane and Janjaweed camel: the resilience, dignity and humor of the people he worked with every day.
“Just imagine being driven out of your home, living hundreds of kilometers away from it,” he says. “You can’t go back without being shot at, but people from the camp would go to a burial, just to do that respectful thing for an ancestor. They are defiant in maintaining their dignity.”
Similarly, Brahma says, refugees ignored nearby bombs rather than interrupt a nursing diploma ceremony and, in the midst of disease and malnutrition, welcomed him with “big fat smiles” every time he appeared.
“It’s a positive defiance,” Brahma says. “People whose culture is being crushed and literally being ripped apart find time to write down customs and language so they will go on.”
As 60 Minutes’ Scott Pelley reported in a segment featuring Brahma, “one reason the Sudanese government is getting away with murder is that the scene of the crime is about as far away as a place can be.”
United Nations Association president Larry Levine, knowing this, is thrilled to have someone of Brahma’s experience to connect locals to the crisis that has killed hundreds of thousands and displaced more than 2 million.
“For over two years, the United Nations Association sought a speaker to tell us about the reality in Darfur, but even most people who specialize in Africa don’t know much about it,” Levine says. “Ashis has lived it and cared for the victims. This is really a special opportunity to learn and to understand the greatest humanitarian crisis in our world today.”
Brahma’s insight is drawn from a deep drawer of responsibilities. At Oure Cassoni he trained native midwives, birth attendants, nurses, doctors and health workers, tracked and treated diseases like meningitis, and oversaw child deliveries. He ordered what drugs he could and issued daily reports. He constructed budgets, reported back to donors, and led tours for visitors and media. Then there were the other challenges, like surviving a robbery at knifepoint and completing “all the administrative bullshit.”
“There were hundreds of things,” says the veteran of assignments in Ethiopia, Sudan and Nepal. “‘How did you do it?’ [you ask]. I have no idea. I freaked out once in a while. And I had great team working with me.”
Brahma’s articulate brand of candor will further enliven the presentation – he speaks with all the passion and enthusiasm of a lifetime humanitarian but with little preachiness. His goal isn’t necessarily to rally an auditorium to charge into international protest, but to stimulate dialogue.
“I worked there, laughed, loved, danced, sang, cried and ached with these people… I can share that.
“[But] it’s not about the story being told,” he says. “It’s about the interaction after the story.”
ASHIS BRAHMA Speaks 7pm Tuesday, Oct. 2, at the Irvine Auditorium of the Monterey Institute of International Studies, 499 Pierce St., Monterey. admission is free.