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Podcast and Q&A on Helping Civilian Victims of War With Sana Bég ’04, Doctors Without Borders
When Russian President Vladimir Putin invaded the sovereign nation of Ukraine, it sparked a widespread humanitarian crisis, as at least 12 million people have fled their homes since the invasion began on Feb. 24.
The fates of these women, children and elderly Ukrainians, who face a violent present and an uncertain future, are up in the air. One organization, as it has for the last 50 years, is providing medical assistance to these refugees: Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders as it is known in the United States.
Sana Bég ’04 is the South Asia director of communications for Doctors Without Borders, an international humanitarian organization that delivers emergency medical aid to people facing conflict and crisis.
While the conflict in Ukraine has dominated the national and international headlines, the truth is there are 72 different countries and territories across the world currently experiencing conflict or facing crisis that benefit from Doctors Without Borders’ humanitarian projects.
“We go where many others can’t or will not go,” says Bég, who earned dual degrees in broadcast journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and international relations from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.
“I wanted to dig a little bit deeper, beyond what the confines of journalism gave me, and that’s how I naturally fell into the work of Doctors Without Borders. … The organization was actually founded 50 years ago by a group of doctors and journalists together who felt that they had this privileged position that so many others don’t when it comes to accessing people who need treatment, and what we witness when we provide treatment. There is that duty to speak out about what we see.”
Bég, who helped launch Al Jazeera America in 2013, sat down with us to discuss how Doctors Without Borders assisted those Ukrainian refugees, the atrocities her organization witnessed while providing relief and the toll the war has taken on these vulnerable citizens.
A proud member of an Orange Legacy family—Bég is one of four Syracuse University graduates in her family, along with Sami ’98, G’05, Shazia ’02 and Sama ’08. Bég shares how her time at Syracuse helped her discover more about her identity and cultivate her storytelling skills, why she wanted to be a voice for the voiceless, and why the University instilled a desire to be forever curious.
Here is the full conversation with Sana Bég ’04 on the “’Cuse Conversations” podcast. A transcript is also available.
01What does Doctors Without Borders do to help the vulnerable victims of war and conflict?
Doctors Without Borders, or Médecins Sans Frontières, is an international medical humanitarian organization. We care for people who are affected by conflict, disease outbreaks, natural and manmade disasters, and those who are generally excluded from health care for one reason or the other. We are currently doing this in one form or another in about 72 countries and territories across the world.
We go where many others can’t or will not go, and we have been doing so now for the last 50 years. We are independent, we’re impartial and we’re neutral. We’re also guided by the highest level of medical ethics. We are transparent and accountable, and we are committed to bearing witness. What this means is that our principles of impartiality and neutrality are not synonymous with silence. We are born out of that need to speak out about what we see firsthand when we are delivering life-saving care.
02How did you combine your broadcast journalism degree with your international relations degree to wind up with Doctors Without Borders?
It seemed like a natural progression after a decades long experience [including being part of the team that launched Al Jazeera America], in the journalism world. Back when I was at Syracuse, I felt broadcast journalism would teach me how to say something and international relations would teach me what to say and give me that depth that perhaps others who would simply just take journalism would not otherwise have. That was the beginning of a very long, interesting journey for me, to delve into the politics and international affairs of contemporary Middle Eastern politics, of South Asian politics and of Eastern European politics. …
After being at Al Jazeera for a few years, I realized the scarcest resource in the 21st century is human attention…I wanted to dig a little bit deeper, beyond what the confines of journalism gave me, and that’s how I naturally fell into the work of Doctors Without Borders. I saw that as a natural progression for me to dive deep and play a role in whatever way that I could in telling the stories of those that we helped that needed the most.
03Describe for us the services Doctors Without Borders provides and how the organization is helping citizens fleeing from conflict in Ukraine?
We’ve been in Ukraine since 1999, but since the war started, the nature of our intervention has obviously changed. Very early on in this crisis we decided to suspend our usual work, which has been around HIV and tuberculosis, and we are focusing now on responding to the unfolding severe humanitarian crisis across the country, both in Ukraine and in the neighboring countries.
Across Ukraine, as we know, people remaining in cities that are under attack face incredible hardship. They live without heating or electricity, without food or clean water or medicines. Hospitals are consistently in danger of running out of supplies, especially for surgical, trauma, emergency room and intensive care unit needs. However, other key medical items are also needed in this war, including insulin for diabetes patients or medicines for patients with chronic diseases such as asthma, hypertension, or HIV. …
We’re not just Doctors Without Borders, there’s a whole orchestra of people that we need to get the work done. We are in contact with the hospitals across the country. We provide supplies and training to them as needed. We’ve donated several hundred tons of medical supplies and relief items to the country, and we’re also providing patient care onboard two medical trains that we’ve converted into mobile medical facilities.
04What were some of the stories you heard about people who were fleeing and what they had to endure just to try to find a place where they could find refuge and get safety and medical treatment?
The wounds and the injuries that we’re seeing on our patients, they show us unquestionably the shocking level of suffering and the indiscriminate violence of this war that is being inflicted specifically on civilians. The accounts that we hear from patients across the board, I wouldn’t pick one, but some of the themes that have emerged and several patterns that we’ve seen in these stories is so many of these civilians have told us that they’ve been shot at while evacuating or they were attacked while trying to leave war zones; that indiscriminate bombing and shelling has killed or maimed people living and sheltering in residential areas; that elderly people have been brutalized or directly attacked, and their particularly vulnerable status has been completely overlooked by attacking forces. Also the types of injuries, the types of wounds that we are seeing are often extensive and horrific. They appear to be indiscriminately affecting people, whether male or female, young or old.
05What made you want to study at Syracuse University in the first place, and how did Syracuse transform your life?
We are a family of Syracuse University alumni. I am one of four siblings, and all four of us graduated from Syracuse University. By tradition, it seemed to be the natural choice. Everyone in the family was raving about the experience, so I was next. But Syracuse really seemed like a home away from home. I’ve grown up in several different countries and for some reason or the other, through relatives or otherwise, hearing about the student experience at Syracuse always seemed to resonate and always seemed to be something that we wanted to be a part of and so we chose to go there.
Once there, there was a sudden awakening in what is my identity. The strong culture of debate, of questioning, of engaging with a thriving student body community and a thriving faculty community allowed me that space to discover what I wanted my identity moving forward to be. In many ways it did transform me. Syracuse is where I realized that what I wanted to do was passionate storytelling, to help be a voice for the voiceless.
06What's the biggest lesson you learned as a student that still resonates with you?
One that has stayed with me has been to be forever curious. I have never, to this day, been at a point where I feel like I have it all figured out. I feel there’s so much for me to learn, not just in terms of the stories from across the world that I hear on a daily basis, but also in terms of the tools and techniques needed to tell those stories. … That curiosity drives me to this day, to not be complacent, to always have your finger on the pulse of what is the latest ways that people consume content so that we can meet them somewhere in the middle and get our message across. That came from Syracuse.