Tarek Loubani's and John Greyson's freedom is our freedom: an OM editorial

Submitted by Carlyn Zwarenstein on September 24, 2013 - 21:41

Two Canadians, Dr. Tarek Loubani and Professor John Greyson, were arrested on August 16th in Cairo, Egypt. They remain in prison, without formal charges. They are 9 days into a hunger strike, hoping to gain attention to their plight. Despite international attention, little is known about the details surrounding their incarceration, or plans for their release.


Both were en route to the Gaza Strip where Loubani, an emergency physician from London, Ontario, leads a project training health workers at Al-Shifa Hospital, the country's largest. Greyson, an award-winning filmmaker and professor at York University in Toronto, accompanied him, hoping to capture the project on film. Loubani and Greyson chose to travel to the Gaza Strip through Egypt and were delayed due to the tragic violence in Cairo. Lost in the city, they sought help at a police station on August 16th, where they were arrested.


It is with great sadness that Canadian humanitarian workers note another injustice delivered to members of our global community. While the circumstances surrounding the incident have yet to be clarified, a familiar truth emerges: the world is becoming more hostile to those of us who have made it our business to travel where we are most needed.


It was not always this way. Medical humanitarianism was borne from the recognition that even during war, there should be equality when caring for the sick or injured, and in that disinterested duty, under the flag of a red cross, there should be freedom to do it.


This has changed. In the pursuit of health for all, the space we have to operate, in places where people need our service the most is, is becoming unliveable.


Despite the peace on our Canadian streets, these are violent times. Two of our Spanish colleagues with Medecins Sans Frontieres were only recently released after a year in captivity, one of a number of incidents that has caused MSF to withdraw from Somalia completely. Two national staff were recently killed in South Sudan. Polio workers are being killed in Nigeria and Pakistan, a violent confusion born from the blurred lines between military interests and aid delivery.


And, two Canadians sit in prison, in Cairo, waiting for the freedom they hoped to deliver and describe to inspire others. With their concerned familes, anxious, waiting for news, a group of doctors, nurses, filmmakers, architects, lawyers, wait to see how our country advocates for their release, because it could have been anyone of us. In this will be a lesson about whether our efforts are worth the future risk.


Canadians must pressure both our and the Egyptian government to free these two humanitarians. The realization that all humans deserve basic medical care is something we learned here, at home, and it is this motivation that leads many Canadians to serve populations in distress around the world each year. We, like Loubani, work in areas of crisis and train health care providers in poor nations. We have seen the benefit of crossing frontiers to provide medical care. It does more than save lives; it shows solidarity for those who suffer, when everything else seems lost. In the end, it is not the medicines that will deliver us from suffering, but an evocation of a shared humanity. It is this sacred, shrinking, space, the same one as under the Red Cross, that is at threat. We need to reclaim it, grow it as large as possible, such that it can provide sanctuary not only for humanitarians, but for Egyptians, and anyone who suffers.


We are not naive. We have done this before, and we'll do it again. We understand that to serve our patients, we need to be close enough to touch them. As we share their pain, so too their risks. This solidarity should not be a crime, though, and until Tarek and John are released, we wait in prison with them. The response to their captivity will measure the shared worth, in the eyes of Canadians and our government, of what they were working for. Our thoughts are with them, their friends and families, as they are with every Egyptian person who wants for safety and health.


Canadians are urged to draft a letter to their Minister of Parliament as soon as possible, asking for their immediate attention to Tarek and John's worsening situation.  



James Maskalyk MD, FRCPC

Raghu Venugopal MD, MPH, FRCPC



James Maskalyk and Raghu Venugopal teach emergency medicine in Ethiopia, have volunteered as humanitarians, and Co-Direct the Global Health and Emergency Medicine group at the University of Toronto and practice emergency medicine in Toronto.  Dr. Maskalyk and Dr. Loubani are associate editors at Open Medicine. Another version of this article appeared as a Globe and Mail commentary on August 29th.

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