A Passion for Justice

Posted on September 1st, 2009 by

Dr. Donny George Youkhanna is the former director of the National Museum in Baghdad.

Dr. Donny George Youkhanna is the former director of the National Museum in Baghdad.

By Allison Marten ’09

What do an award-winning American journalist and a former director of the National Museum in Baghdad have in common? A passion for and commitment to justice.

Both Dr. Donny George Youkhanna and John Pomfret presented lectures on campus in September 2008 in which they shared their diverse life experiences involving their own paths that promote social justice.

George, former director of the National Museum in Baghdad, gave a lecture to more than 500 people on “Looting the Iraq Museums: Loss of Nation’s Memory.” He spoke about his work protecting Iraq’s cultural heritage by first trying to safeguard and later recovering art and artifacts that had been looted from the museum following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

As a part of Gustavus’s annual Reading in Common book program, award-winning journalist John Pomfret spoke about his book Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China. Pomfret has studied and worked in China on-and-off for over a decade and uses these experiences to write and speak about China’s tumultuous history.

George faced many obstacles throughout his endeavor. One of his most poignant stories described how the children’s museum was badly damaged by a tank blast. Despite many setbacks and even receiving numerous death threats, George persevered and was eventually able to successfully return thousands of looted artifacts. Today George lives in America where he teaches and lectures on these valuable cultural artifacts.

Pomfret’s lecture also shed light on the importance of cultural heritage. Inspired to write Chinese Lessons based on his own unique experiences living and studying in China beginning in 1980, Pomfret used the lives of his Chinese classmates to expound upon China’s turbulent path of reinvention over the past several decades. Pomfret also spent time in China as an Associated Press reporter during the Tiananmen Square protests in the 1980s and served as Beijing bureau chief for the Washington Post from 1998 to 2003.

George and Pomfret brought their unique cultural experiences to life through their Gustavus lectures. Using firsthand accounts and personal photographs, George illustrated the challenges and triumphs he faced throughout his journey to safeguard Iraq’s antiquities. George’s relentless commitment to the preservation of his nation’s history has earned him international respect and is an excellent example of social justice in action.

Pomfret’s life also exemplifies how social justice can be incorporated into daily living. His deep connection with China has allowed him to speak to audiences about the country’s ever-evolving society through a unique perspective. During Pomfret’s lecture, he challenged the audience of several hundred people to change their traditional views of Chinese society.

Dedicating one’s life to the pursuit of social justice can be a daunting and sometimes dangerous task. Gustavus was fortunate to host visits from two extraordinary people who have done just that.


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