Former Mount Allison University student Phil Blanchard delivered a talk to an audience of roughly thirty people last Wednesday in the Wu Centre, discussing his experience working with Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in the Congo and Iraq.
The event was scheduled to coincide with a presentation by Richard Heinzl, the founder of the first North American MSF chapter. Heinzl was scheduled to deliver a talk the previous evening as part of the President’s Speakers Series.
But Tuesday morning, an email from Mount Allison University President Robert Campbell informed the university community that Heinzl’s talk was cancelled due to illness.
Blanchard’s presentation was organized in part by Mt. A’s international centre. Manager of International Affairs Adam Christie introduced Blanchard at Wednesday’s event.
“We are very disappointed that Dr. Heinzl could not make it. He is an inspirational speaker and was looking forward to informally interacting with Mt. A,” said Frank Strain, a member of the President’s Speaker Series Committee. “With luck we can reschedule.”
Blanchard graduated from Mt. A in 2012, where his interest in MSF took form. “I attended a lecture by James Orbinski, former president of MSF, here at Mt. A in my second year, and after that lecture, and having read his book An Imperfect Offering, I knew what I wanted to do.”
Blanchard was hired to do logistical work with MSF. He worked for the organization in transportation, construction, communications, and a variety of other capacities. “I knew about [MSF] for a long time, but I didn’t know they didn’t hire non-medical doctors,” Blanchard said.
He said it was a combination of his international relations degree and life experiences that made MSF a perfect fit for him. “[Mt. A] is good at piecing together poverty, economics, resource extraction, consumption and getting to understand how these things are all connected.”
After graduating in 2012, Blanchard immediately became involved with MSF, first being placed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, then in Iraq. He returned to Canada this past December. Blanchard said MSF was relatively well known in the Congolese city of Goma, which it made the transition to a Third World country a lot easier. In places like Iraq however, MSF was not as well known, which had its challenges, including not being able to leave the camp in which they worked. He said that previous travel experience made the transition much easier.
Blanchard also said that he gained new insights through his work. “You really start to understand why countries like Iraq were at war. They have a much more complicated history and society. Even being in Iraq for six months, you hardly scratch the surface.”