‘We have a moral responsibility to act’

Founder of War Child Canada to speak today about awareness of war’s global impact

Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child Canada and shown here with doctors in Iraq, says Canadians need to start thinking about their relationship to war differently.
Dr. Samantha Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child Canada and shown here with doctors in Iraq, says Canadians need to start thinking about their relationship to war differently.
Credit: 
Photo courtesy of War Child Canada

For most Canadians, the word “war” evokes images of rubble-riddled cities seen on the evening news and newspaper headlines spouting political jargon and declaring death tolls.

For Dr. Samantha Nutt, who has been caught in the midst of gunfire and seen the devastating effects of war on civilians in several countries, no words can truly describe the devastation.

“It’s the most unimaginable horror,” she said. “It stays with you forever, and changes your life. It’s frightening, intimidating and relentlessly unforgiving.”

Nutt, founder and executive director of War Child Canada, will give the Aesculapian Medical Undergraduate Society’s H.G. Kelly lecture on “A Journey into Action.”

“I will discuss what it means to be a good global citizen, how we are connected to war by the things we do everyday, how we can divest ourselves from war in our daily lives,” she told the Journal.

Born in Toronto, Nutt spent her childhood near Durban, South Africa. She attended McMaster University, went to the London school of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and studied medicine at the University of Toronto.

From 1995 to 1999, Nutt worked as a maternal and child health consultant for UNICEF in Somalia and Liberia, both suffering from the aftermath of civil war.

“I was going into areas where UNICEF was in transition or because of the emergency they were being forced to re-evaluate their service,” she said. “I looked at needs and assessments, and did interviews with community groups to try and get a sense of what was working, what the needs were, and where they should place their emphasis.” After her work with UNICEF and exposure to the devastating conditions of war, Nutt decided to start her own organization, aimed at changing the public perception of war and Canada’s own connections and responses to war.

Incorporated in 1998 and registered as a charity in 1999, War Child runs programs in war-torn countries that focus on creating sustainable opportunities for local communities, and provides educational and economical support for children and their families in areas of conflict and post-conflict such as Northern Uganda, Darfur, Sri Lanka, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, and Iraq.

Nutt said there are several organizations doing charitable work, but she wanted War Child to go beyond the realm of charity and work within communities to get locals involved.

“War Child is different in the sense that a lot of organizations either divide into advocacy, or they’re implementing organizations on the ground doing the work,” she said.

Nutt said War Child bridges those two domains and does both.

“We are involved in advocacy, but we are also an implementing agency,” she said. “We use the programs we are engaged in overseas to get people involved.”

Nutt has visited countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Somalia, Northern Uganda, Congo and Burundi.

Returning to Canada after working in those countries, Nutt said she’s always shocked by the apathy Canadians have towards war.

“One of the things I found was I would always come back and realize that people didn’t know and didn’t want to know,” she said. “I was just sort of trying to figure out why that was.”

Nutt said ignorance of war and its effects stems from the limited glimpses of war most North Americans see through newspapers and television broadcasts. “We just aren’t exposed to it, and when we think of it we feel very removed from it.”

The reality, Nutt said, is that we’re not.

“The diamonds we wear, the gas we put in our cars—we are connected to conflicts in parts of the world,” she said. “We have a moral responsibility to act.”

Today, War Child Canada has an annual budget of $3 million to $4 million, 14 full-time staff, thousands of volunteers and programming in more than a dozen countries. However, its beginning, Nutt noted, was humble.

“For the longest time, it was my backpack and my cell phone,” she said. “I worked as a volunteer trying to get if off the ground for two years.”

Nutt has visited several war zones, but she said nothing compares to starting an organization.

“It’s the hardest thing that I’ve ever had to do,” she said. “It’s not just starting an organization, it’s true of anyone who’s trying to do something that’s new or different and doesn’t have a preexisting reputation.

“Any organization is never about one person, it’s about the people that breathe life into it and make it something.”

Through her work, Nutt said she has experienced the horrors of war, poverty, abuse and disease. However, seeing the vision she and other War Child workers share succeed has been the most rewarding experience of her life.

“It’s amazing to see those great ideas and intentions come to fruition,” she said. “We’re seeing kids who at the start of our program were illiterate, being abused and had no hope for the future now graduating from colleges.”

Nutt said War Child Canada tends to attract young people as volunteers, primarily because of the connection young Canadians feel with those fighting in wars overseas.

“It’s young people who are being asked to fight and die in wars around the world,” she said. “If you look at people who are in high school or university, what [wars] have they known? They’ve known Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan … it just goes on.”

Within the past decade, Nutt said, war has become more pervasive in the lives of young people through globalization and the growth of the internet as a resource for news and current events. “It’s very much a part of their daily lives,” she said. “On top of it, they’re the ones that are being asked to pay the ultimate price, which is to participate in war.”

One particular incident in May 2004 reminded Nutt how thankful she is to live in a country like Canada.

“I was in the Congo, and we were filming a documentary. It had been stable where we were, but the Congo military arrested generals at the border, and all hell broke loose,” she said. “In 24 hours, 100,000 rounds went off, and grenades were launched. We were 50 civilians all together, and we all thought that the soldiers were in the building.”

Nutt said she’s very careful about her security, but there’s no guarantee when violence breaks out.

“Not knowing whether you’re going to make it out is torture. For me, I always go back to the fact that it’s one thing for me to have just experienced this,” she said. “I can come home to Canada to enjoy this peaceful country, but there are so many people for whom this is a reality.”

Although she’s always happy to return home to Canada, Nutt said a sense of guilt hangs over her.

“I feel guilt that in the sense that everyone should be entitled be to the peace and the prosperity that we enjoy here,” she said. “By virtue of the fact that they were born somewhere else, they worry when they go to sleep that their kids will be shot in the middle of the night.”

Nutt said her future plans for War Child Canada include to continue working at a grassroots level with war-torn communities to rebuild.

“Our plans are to continue doing what we do if we’re lucky, because there are so many demands for our programming,” she said. “We want to continue to expand our programming that is making a difference, and have that strong base of support from donors that we know we can rely.”

Whether or not War Child will expand relies on what is rational for the organization within the next few years, she said.

“It’s not necessarily about growth, it’s about doing what you do and doing it well,” she said. “You can expand and not be achieving your goals any better than you were a smaller organization. It’s about making sure we are where we are needed and we can respond to the priorities and concerns in the countries.”

Nutt said she plans to discuss the dire effects of war and its global impact. “War is the greatest of all tragedies. If we are ever going to break this cycle of violence, and stop our children from inheriting this legacy, we need to start looking at our relationship to war differently.” Nutt said she hopes Queen’s students come away from her talk with a sense of awareness, and the incentive to act.

“We sit and read about what’s happening, but we don’t take the time discussing it and debating it,” she said. “I hope that people will come away with questions answered, but many more questions they didn’t know they had and demanding answers.”

Dr. Samantha Nutt will deliver the lecture “A Journey Into Action” today at 5:30 p.m. in Etherington Auditorium.

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