Mohammed stares into the camera, his piercing eyes aflame with passion.
“I have to write my exams - I can’t afford to lose another year,” the high school student urgently tells the journalist taking his photograph, displayed on a screen at Congress 2014.
Mohammed lives in Yarmouk, Syria, one of tens of thousands caught up in brutal civil war. His losses are unfathomable: his mother and sister dead from a rocket that ripped their humble house apart; two other sisters injured; a future threatened by the brutality of war and hunger.
Why should we care about Mohammed?
Because Mohammed’s story is our story, says Lyse Doucet, chief international correspondent for the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
Doucet kicked off Congress 2014’s Big Thinking lecture series Saturday with her talk “Borders Without Boundaries: Whose stories are ours?”
She told the audience of more than 100 that there are many “threads” that bind Canadians with Mohammed and others in seemingly far-flung places.
Media and internet-based tools such as Twitter give us instant and “extraordinary access” to what’s happening to people and communities all over the world, she said, so we cannot say that we “didn’t know” what was going on.
But even more profoundly, events around the world have become much closer to home because of the changing face of Canadian towns and cities. Doucet described growing up in her New Brunswick town, which at the time was close-knit and fairly generic when she left to attend Queen’s University in 1976.
“Five years ago, when my father fell gravely ill, we found that the cardiologist was from Algeria, the heart specialist was from Pakistan, and the other doctor on my father’s case was born in Uganda,” Doucet recalled when she and other family members returned to her New Brunswick town.
“The people and places in the news aren’t from some other place on the edge of the world,” she said. “There’s people from these countries that live on our streets, who go to our schools, who teach at our universities.”
And it works the other way. Doucet described a time when she was in a public square in Bengazi where a group of women were holding up framed photographs of family members who had been murdered.
“One of them brought me to a halt,” she recalled. “I recognized the nice wood paneling, the red gown trimmed in gold and blue: a graduation gown from my university, Queen’s University.
“A young Libyan had come from our country to this with a degree in chemical engineering. And he was killed for speaking out, killed for a crime that in our country is called ‘democracy.”
Another tie binding us together? Bread: “the stuff of life.”
Holding up a loaf of bread that Doucet had bought that morning at breakfast in St. Catharines, she described how many people living in Syrian war zones survive by eating grass and desperately search for bread, as the withholding of food is “a weapon of war” - a “surrender or starve” tactic.
Doucet noted how Mohammed told her that the “brain needs bread” to function and learn. Despite the tremendous odds, she said, the determination and courage Mohammed and his fellow students give her hope.
Doucet’s talk Saturday is the first of the Big Thinking lecture series offered at Congress 2014. The series features forward-thinking research, ideas and solutions to critical questions and issues of our time. Upcoming talk this week:
- Tim Cook - The borders between life and death: Stories of the supernatural and uncanny among Canada’s Great War soldiers (Monday, May 26, 7:45 a.m.)
- Lise Bissonnette - Servitude et grandeur universitaire (Monday, May 26 @ 12:15 p.m.)
- David Plotz - Fast, cheap, and out of control: How the Internet has made journalism better than it’s ever been (Tuesday, May 27, 7:45 a.m.)
- Catherine Dauvergne - The end of settler societies and the new politics of immigration (Wednesday, May 28, 12:15 p.m.)
- Benjamin Barber - If Mayors ruled the world: Is the city democracy’s best hope? (Thursday, May 29, 7:45 a.m.)
- Lawrence Hill - Blood: The Stuff of Life (Thursday, May 29, 12:15 p.m.)
- Congress 2014 blog (May 25): “Lyse Doucet - Working in a savage reality“
Watch Lyse Doucet’s Big Thinking lecture in full: