May 29, 2007
Forging connections across nations
Paul Farmer is a physician, medical anthropologist, author and champion of international health and social justice. Farmer delivered the keynote address and received an honorary Doctor of Science degree at Emory’s 2007 Commencement ceremony.
I met “Joe” because of a 1991 coup in Haiti, where I’d been working since graduating from college. Joe’s parents were poor, but able to read and write and interested in service to others. They were involved in a mass-literacy movement that had taken root in Haiti about the time of that country’s first democratic elections, which occurred in December 1990. Seven months after a landslide victory brought a liberation theologian to the presidency, a violent military coup brought an end to democratic rule in Haiti.
The ensuing repression was fearsome. Refugees streamed out of the cities and into the hills; over the border into the Dominican Republic, where they were unwelcome; and onto the high seas.
Joe’s mother Yolande was among the refugees whose boat was detained by the U.S. Coast Guard and taken to the U.S. Naval Base in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Yolande, found to be positive for HIV, was detained and mistreated.
Yolande was eventually released. I visited her and other Haitian refugees in New York and Boston after this particular ordeal was over.
A decade went by, and I confess I didn’t think much about Joe. But just before Christmas 2005 I received a check in the amount of $250. Joe said he wished to support the work of our group, Partners In Health, in Haiti and to help us one day in serving the destitute sick there.
I was grateful for the contribution, for we certainly needed the help in Haiti. What struck me most, though, was that Joe was in Fallujah. He’d joined the Marines and been sent to Iraq.
I wrote back to him and we stayed in touch through e-mail and, once in a while, by phone. We didn’t talk much about the war or his daily reality. He took great pains to let me know that, by the time I began inquiring anxiously about his safety, he no longer went out on missions “beyond the wire,” but was responsible for supplying another group of Marines out on patrol.
He didn’t say much, over e-mail, about his activities, noting only how relieved he felt when his “guys” returned safely to the forward-operating base in Fallujah. More often than not, he’d tell me that I was the one who needed to be careful, since he knew what was happening in Haiti. But I knew that being in Iraq was a great struggle for him: an outward and an internal struggle. I knew that he was distressed by what he was hearing about Guantánamo, and had to assume he was thinking about his own mother’s experience there.
Over a year of brief but almost daily e-mails, our connection deepened. When last month Joe returned to see his mother, brother and girlfriend, we made plans to meet. Any city, any time, I said: I’ll take you out for a nice meal and we’ll catch up.
I was in Haiti when Joe wrote me one Monday. It was nighttime in Fallujah, and he was leaving just then for the States; he’d call me as soon as he landed. I forgot to ask when, exactly, that would be, and so started to worry right away — the most dangerous part, I reckoned, would be getting in and out of Baghdad. My phone rang on Saturday, and shortly thereafter I got to enjoy a long reunion with Joe.
Joe allowed that the main reasons he was planning to stay in Iraq were to look after his mother, who he knew might fall ill at any time; to send his brother to a proper college; and to be able to buy a home and have a family. “I want to look forward, not back,” said the irrepressibly optimistic Joe.
Some things we didn’t discuss, including the fact that Joe is not yet a U.S. citizen. But we did discuss his brother’s plans. Whenever he had trouble making ends meet, Joe’s brother thought about joining the military too. “Do that only as a last resort,” advised Joe. “I’ll find the money for you to finish college.” There was so much left to talk about that we called each other every day during his leave. He is now back in Fallujah, and I spoke with him just yesterday.
Joe’s story is a story about connections. As you head off to lives full of promise, remember that the connections you’ve made here at Emory need to be sustained and nourished. I let Joe fall out of my life for a decade, and his mother and brother too. Thankfully, Joe’s generosity brought us all back together. I won’t lose track of them again; friendship is too precious a gift.
But what about our peculiar military base in, of all places, Cuba? Guantánamo is a place outside the reach of constitutional protections, so you might think of it as a place of disconnection; but the very disconnection connects you and me to that place and what is done there. I hope you will all take on the responsibility of remembering how closely we are connected to the things that should disquiet us.
Joe’s story is for me a parable about the kind of country we want to live in. Look around you. Look at the way Emory looks today compared to the way it looked, say, only 50 years ago. You probably know that Emory was founded in the first half of the 19th century by people who owned slaves. But did you know that Emory was forbidden by state law from educating African Americans at the same time it enrolled white students? Did you know that it was only in 1962 that Emory brought suit against the state of Georgia and won the right to enroll students without regard to race? Emory’s rise to greatness could never have happened without that struggle.
How do you want Emory to look in the future? Although our elite universities are less homogeneous than they were a few decades ago, they remain islands of privilege with far too few people like Joe. And although his brother has aspirations to attend a decent college, it’s unlikely he could transfer here from the community college he now attends, especially given that he’s working an almost full-time job on top of his studies. But still, look around you and wonder what this place would look like if we were not a country of immigrants. We ought to be celebrating this heritage with gratitude. Yet no fewer than 305 new U.S. anti-immigration groups have formed since January 2005.
What kind of place do we want our country to be? I ask this knowing that not everyone here is a U.S. citizen. Then again, neither is Joe, even though he’s serving in Iraq. If you’re here today you are somehow part of this country, this great experiment in modern democracy.
Granted, our nation’s reputation is not impeccable. But until quite recently the United States has often served as a beacon of hope in many parts of the world. How do we wish to be seen by others? Do we want America to be a place known as violent at home, even on college campuses, and violent abroad? Or do we want to try and change even those hearts which, unlike the polar ice caps, show little sign of melting?
The forces that tore Joe’s family asunder and sent his mother to an “HIV-positive concentration camp” are not unrelated to those that would ten years later lead him to Iraq, even if he himself focuses largely on issues such as family strife or economic necessity.
But the reason I mention Joe today is his generosity. In the midst of all that he’s been through, he’s still able to think about service to others, including people in the poverty-stricken country he has not seen since he was a child. Even in Iraq, Joe is still able to remember those less fortunate than himself. These are worthy ideals, and not unrelated to the notion of service that Emory espouses.
To what extent does Emory espouse such notions? Take the Global Health Institute, which was launched by friends of mine, anthropologists and doctors and public health specialists from across the University. It’s as good an example of how a research university can link its strengths to service to the poor as any I can think of, and has the strong support of President Wagner and the Emory administration.
Here among you, for example, is a young woman, Julie Rosenberg, graduating from the school of public health. Before even attending college, she worked for a year among some of the poorest children in urban Peru. She let these children, and their families, change her life. Although she’s only in her mid-twenties, she has for several years raised funds and awareness on behalf of these families.
There are also important collectives represented here today, because Emory is a major site of basic research leading to drug development, and because some of these drugs are of obvious importance to people in my line of work, I am excited to know that Universities Allied for Essential Medicines is active here. Eighty percent of today’s prescriptions for AIDS medications include at least one drug covered by Emory intellectual property rights.
There is, in your students and faculty, enormous promise for the world in which all of us live.
I don’t doubt that some of you in the audience today have reached this stage after a journey not unlike Joe’s, a passage across national borders, over class lines, through hardship and adjustment. And it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Emory has inspired and shaped all of you — those who came here with all the advantages no less than those who came here with few. That is part of the utopia that gives our country its meaning, that gives the university based on research and teaching its value.
As you go forth from these extraordinary years of freedom and discovery, I ask you to keep alive in your minds the curiosity that brought you here, and to revive it from time to time by forging new connections to the others who would have done well with the same opportunities, had they been so fortunate.
This essay has been adapted from Farmer’s Commencement address. For the complete