Abuelaish calls on graduates to ‘speak up’

Today’s graduates must not stand idly by and witness the injustices of the world; they must speak out against them, said Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.

Abuelaish spoke to 556 graduates from the Faculty of Information and Media Studies (FIMS), Don Wright Faculty of Music and School of Graduate & Postdoctoral Studies at the Wednesday, June 20 morning session of Western’s 299th Convocation.

Western conferred an honorary Doctor of Laws, honoris causa (LL.D.) upon Abuelaish, a Palestinian medical doctor and infertility specialist, for dedicating his life to peace in the conflict between Israel and Palestine.

“It’s time for all of us to speak up. This world can endure through justice and truth. You are responsible to speak against man-made suffering, ignorance and arrogance. Truth is the light which will lead us to the peaceful way,” Abuelaish said.

Abuelaish was born in 1955 in Gaza’s Jabalia refugee camp, where he endured poverty, uncertainty, violence, checkpoints and travel restrictions. He overcame tremendous hardships in pursuit of his dream to become a doctor, attending medical school at the University of Cairo and later obtaining a diploma in obstetrics and gynecology from the Ministry of Health in Saudi Arabia and a masters of public health from Harvard University.

In 1997, he began a residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Soroka hospital in Be’er Sheva, making him the first Palestinian doctor to join the staff of an Israeli hospital. With one foot in Gaza and the other foot in Israel, he was a human bridge that reached across the borders of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while he delivered babies, promoted maternal health and helped infertile couples conceive.

Abuelaish is the recipient of the 2009 Stavros Niarchos Prize for Survivorship, 2009 Middle East Institute Award, 2010 Uncommon Courage Award from Queen’s College and 2010 Mahatma Gandhi Peace Award of Canada. In 2010, he was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

Abuelaish told the graduates the world needs information, and they must challenge and stand against all that inhibits equality in the world.

“Look at humans as equals, not as statistics and numbers. Fight for the freedoms of all. No one is free as long as others are not,” Abuelaish said, perpetually stressing a peaceful response to war and hatred. “Words are stronger than bullets.”

In her citation, FIMS professor Amanda Grzyb said Abuelaish’s research on maternal health and his commitment to cross-cultural dialogue is a vision we should all embrace for a nonviolent resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

During the three-week Gaza War in 2008-09, in the midst of IDF shelling, Abuelaish barricaded himself and his family inside their home. On Jan. 16, 2009, only three months after his wife, Nadia, had died from acute leukemia – leaving their eight children motherless – tank shells hit his house killing his three daughters, Bessan, Mayar, and Aya, and niece, Noor.

“Izzeldin is a symbol of the tragic human consequences of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but, more than that, he is an inspirational advocate for peace, tolerance, education and reconciliation,” said Grzyb, referring to Abuelaish as an “uncompromising agent of peace in the Middle East and around the world.”

Abuelaish said a dedication to the education of women can change the world and eradicate hatred and prejudice. He reflected on Daughters for Life, a charity he founded in his daughters’ honour, which gives university scholarships to women in the Middle East.

“Education is the most efficient means of changing this world – the education of girls and women. A healthy, educated girl and woman will raise healthy, educated children, husbands, families, communities and nations,” said Abuelaish, who dedicated his degree to the memory of his daughters at the start and received a standing ovation at the end of his speech.

Also during the ceremony FIMS professor Amanda Grzyb was presented with the Marilyn Robinson Award for Excellence in Teaching.

The status of professor emeritus was also conferred upon FIMS professor Bernd Frohmann.