Two Canadians, Dr. Tarek Loubani and Professor John Greyson, were arrested on Aug. 16th in Cairo. They remain in prison, without formal charges. Little is known about the details surrounding their incarceration, or plans for their release.
Both were en route to the Gaza Strip where Mr. Loubani, an emergency physician from London, Ont., leads a project training health workers at Al-Shifa Hospital, the country’s largest. Mr. 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 violence in Cairo. Lost in the city, they sought help at a police station, where they were arrested.
Out of this injustice, a familiar truth emerges: the world is becoming more hostile to those like Mr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson who have made it their business to travel where most needed to aid those in distress.
It was not always this way. Medical humanitarianism was borne from the recognition that even during war, there should be a decency and space to care for the sick or injured, and in that disinterested duty, there should be freedom to do it. This has changed. In the pursuit of health for all, the places where people need services the most are becoming unlivable. Those trying to help have become a target.
Along with their concerned families are scores of doctors, nurses, film makers, architects, lawyers and good-hearted Canadians waiting to see how our country advocates for their release, because it could have been any one of us. This incident will provide a litmus test about whether future humanitarian efforts are worth the risk.
Canadians must pressure both Ottawa and the Egyptian government to free our two countrymen. 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.
Many Canadians work in areas of crisis and train health care providers in poor nations. The benefit of crossing frontiers to provide medical care does more than save lives – it adds humanity to human life. It reclaims the idea of what is to be human 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. This sacred, shrinking, space 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 also for Egyptians, and anyone else who suffers.
We know that to treat our patients, we need to be close enough to touch them and to ask them their stories. As we share their pain, so too do we share their risks. This solidarity should not be a crime. Until Mr. Loubani and Mr. Greyson 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 trying to accomplish. We must act swiftly and assertively on behalf of these two humanitarians. They reflect the best of our nation and our fundamental values.
James Maskalyk and Raghu Venugopal teach emergency medicine in Ethiopia and have worked around the world in humanitarian crises as volunteers. They co-direct the Global Health and Emergency Medicine group at the University of Toronto and practice emergency medicine in Toronto.