Dialogue helps overcome difference in an atomised world
In the wake of 9/11, it seemed to Paul Komesaroff that something was being lost from the world.
What was being lost, he feared, was the ability of people to communicate, to enter into dialogue, across what he calls ”difference” – cultural, racial and religious difference. As well as being a professor of medicine at Monash University, Komesaroff is the director of the university’s Centre for Ethics in Medicine and Society.
After 9/11, his concern initially manifested in a ”loose workshop” – organised by Komesaroff and colleague Professor Paul James from RMIT – which was held in Melbourne in 2002. These workshops were then held overseas. In 2006 in Sarajevo, precisely because they were from outside that country, the two Australians persuaded both Serbs and Muslims to attend.
This week, people from 33 countries are attending a conference the pair have organised in Amman, Jordan. Their organisation, Global Reconciliation, counts Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as Australian Sir William Deane, among its patrons. Global Reconciliation aims to create dialogue across difference on every conceivable subject: sport, culture, arts, health care, education, spirituality.
Komesaroff is not motivated by formal religious belief. ”I just believe we are inherently responsible for one another. I’ve felt that for as long as I’ve been aware.” He is an extremely gentle man with a big grin who can be moved to tears recalling a story about a connection that formed between an Israeli woman in the Golan Heights and a Syrian soldier.
There is an optimism in what he is doing. The optimism derives, he says, ”from the ordinary people in whose lives I am honoured and privileged to play a part as a doctor”. Everything he does, he says, comes back to being a doctor.
Komesaroff is the grandson of Jewish immigrants from Russia and Poland who came to Australia after World War I but before the Holocaust. While at Melbourne High School, he became involved in the anti-Vietnam war protests and saw how such movements could create social change.
His first degree was in pure maths but he feared entering ”the ivory tower” of academia. He then did a doctorate on the conceptual foundations of modern physics, the theory of relativity, before deciding he could make his ”most direct social contribution” through becoming a doctor.
He sees medicine as being an area that needs dialogue. ”In the West, for example, we tend to see foreign aid as a one-way charitable relationship that can end up being more for the donors than the recipients.” Komesaroff was in northern Sri Lanka in 2004 after the tsunami. Malaria and malnutrition were endemic and there was one doctor for 150,000 people. When foreign aid arrived, it was six ECG machines for which there was no electricity.
Among those attending this week’s Amman conference is a Dutch psychiatrist called Nanko Van Buuren who has worked in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro for the past 25 years. Van Buuren has the confidence of both the drug cartels who operate from the favelas and the government. One of the projects he has established is a barefoot doctor program. Paul Komesaroff says he finds the example of people such as Nanko Van Buuren ”deeply humbling”.