Great Conversation to Feature Nobel Laureate Dr. James Orbinski

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Great Conversation to Feature Nobel Laureate Dr. James Orbinski

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the UND Honors Program is hosting a Great Conversation with Dr. James Orbinski, Wednesday, Oct. 26, at 7 p.m. at the Chester Fritz Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.Dr. Orbinski will sign books following the discussion.

The event is also sponsored by the Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs' Office, Student Government, and the School of Medicine and Health Sciences.

A Speaker to Celebrate 50 Years of Honors

The UND Honors Program is the midst of its 50th anniversary year, and has been celebrating throughout 2011. It held a birthday party in February, and hosted the Upper Midwest Regional Honors Conference in April. For its culminating anniversary event, Honors decided to bring a speaker to campus for a Great Conversation event.

While the program was looking for a speaker, Robin David, Honors Program Associate Director, was teaching a one-credit Honors course on Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF). Students in the class watched the documentary Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma, and found themselves intrigued and inspired by him. And he was clearly an excellent fit for the Honors Program's priorities.

"We wanted to get a speaker who exemplifies our Honors Program Goals," says Honors Program Director, Dr. Sally Pyle. "We concentrate on developing in our students the skills of civic engagement, critical thinking, research, and perspective. It was important to find a person whose work embodies those goals."

A few phone calls and email exchanges later, and Dr. Orbinski agreed to participate in the Great Conversations event.

Dr. James Orbinski

Dr. James Orbinski is a globally recognized humanitarian practitioner and advocate, and one of the world's leading scholars in global health. He has worked in some of the most disturbing and complex humanitarian emergencies, including Somalia's civil war and famine from 1992-93, the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and the refugee crisis in Zaire in 1996-97. After extensive field experience with MSF, Dr. Orbinski served as MSF's international president from 1998-2001.

In 1999 he accepted the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of MSF for its pioneering approach to medical humanitarianism, particularly its emphasis on bearing witness. "We are not sure that words can always save lives," Dr. Orbinski stated in his Nobel lecture, "but we know that silence can certainly kill." He utilized the Nobel platform to put this philosophy into practice, opening his lecture with a statement about the ongoing bombing of Grozny and Chechnya and an appeal to the Russian ambassador in the audience to stop the attacks.

Dr. Orbinski practices clinical medicine at St. Michael's Hospital, University of Toronto, and helped launch a multidisciplinary PhD program there in Global Health.

He is co-founder and Board Chair of Dignitas International, a hybrid academic NGO committed to the research and practice of community-based care for people living with HIV in the developing world.

A theme that emerges throughout his career is the need to restore human dignity to those who have had theirs stripped away by war, poverty, and disease. "I have witnessed politics fail and I have witnessed the struggle to be fully human when it does," he writes in his book, An Imperfect Offering: Humanitarian Action for the Twenty-First Century. "Humanitarianism is about the struggle to create the space to be fully human."

This work involves not just providing direct medical aid to populations in need, but simultaneously addressing the root causes of the problem. His career demonstrates his ability to engage the significant global health issues of our day through the realms of politics, research, education, and advocacy.

Anticipating His Visit

When Dr. Orbinski agreed to come to UND, Robin David decided to teach a one-credit Honors class about him. "We have a lot of students in the health sciences, and the courses on MSF and on Dr. Orbinski have been a great way for some of them to contemplate issues of civic engagement in their future career field," says David.

"Some students are planning a career in medical humanitarianism, or at least hope to incorporate short-term medical trips to developing nations into their more traditional medical practice here. Several students have already volunteered abroad."

The students have been reading An Imperfect Offering, watching Triage, contemplating philosophical, practical, and political issues regarding humanitarianism, and eagerly awaiting his visit. "The students have been telling all their friends and family all about Dr. Orbinski, and are generating plenty of excitement about his visit," said David. "We are all pretty excited, frankly."

Honors students also voted to make MSF their service charity for the academic year. Throughout the year, Honors students will be fundraising for this organization. Their current project involves raking lawns on Sunday afternoons, with homeowners paying a free will offering to Doctors Without Borders. People can call 777-5098 or email und.honorsprogram@email.und.edu to schedule raking.

Collaboration with Global Visions Film Series

In conjunction with the Great Conversation event, the Global Visions Film Series scheduled showings of two related films. Triage: Dr. James Orbinski's Humanitarian Dilemma was shown the week prior to his visit, on Oct. 19. This 2008 documentary follows Dr. Orbinski on his return trip to Rwanda as he reflects on his experiences there during the genocide, as well as his work in Somalia and the Congo.

The week after his visit, on Nov. 2, attendees will have an opportunity to learn more about MSF from Living in Emergency, a 2008 documentary which follows four volunteers struggling to provide emergency medical care in the war zones of Liberia and the Congo.

Both movies will be shown at 7 p.m. at the Memorial Union Lecture Bowl. The suggested admission price is a $1 donation.

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