Claire Bertschinger - Citation

Pro-Chancellor,

Courageous, compassionate and committed: these are all words that characterize our honorary graduand, Claire Bertschinger. Standing here before you is a woman who was the inspiration for one of the most successful fund-raising initiatives of recent years; a person described by a leading news journalist as 'one of the true heroines of our times', and a figure publicly hailed in international awards as showing exceptional devotion to the wounded, sick and disabled at times of conflict and disaster. She has exercised calm, expertise and determination in situations of great danger, horror and suffering, in order to help the most destitute and desperate. Her grit and selfless generosity in working with the most impoverished and downtrodden in the most dreadful circumstances has moved millions throughout the world and raised awareness of the need to address world poverty. It is for these reasons that the University applauds and celebrates her contribution today.

Claire Bertschinger has always had something of the spirit of adventure and a keen interest in far-away places. Early in her career, she served as a nurse on 'Operation Drake', a round-the-world exploratory scientific expedition, for instance. Nor did she flinch from dangerous and difficult assignments, working in the Lebanon, Panama, Papua New Guinea and Sulawesi. But in 1984, as a nurse with the International Committee of the Red Cross, she found herself in an environment like no other she had experienced: at a feeding centre in Ethiopia amidst a famine of unimaginable proportions, she was tasked with selecting handfuls of children for care from the 85,000 people who had come for help. Her own diary entry records exactly the burden that fell on her: 'There are thousands of people outside. I have counted 10 rows and each row has more than 100 people in and I can only take 60 - 70 children today, but they all need to come in. . . . what a job. How can I decide?' Even when difficult choices were made, the obstacles she faced in trying to save lives were heartbreaking. She took an anaemic baby to the hospital for a blood transfusion, only to discover there was no blood - and so she gave the baby a unit of her own: 'today I have done something', is the diary entry, recorded with typical modest understatement.

Claire Bertschinger's shouldering of what can only be described as a traumatic responsibility, her skill, and her obvious care for those she nursed, saved many lives at that feeding station. But the impact of her actions had repercussions she initially knew nothing about. Michael Buerk, travelling through Ethiopa to report on the famine for BBC news, broadcast an interview with Claire working with the starving at her station. In days, the report with its devastating images circled the globe, raising consciousness of a massive humanitarian crisis. Claire's work inspired Bob Geldof to record his Band Aid single and organize the Live Aid fund-raising initiative. Her bravery and selfless service helped personalize the tragedy of massive suffering in a way no statistics and formal reports could do. Touching thousands of hearts, her efforts made ordinary individuals aware that they too could make - should make - their own contribution to relieving such suffering. 'Why was it possible in this time of plenty that some have food and some do not?', Claire wrote at the time. 'It is not right', she added - and her efforts in Ethiopia persuaded thousands around the globe to share her view. After Ethiopia, Claire Bertschinger continued her humanitarian commitment to those crushed by famine and war. She worked in many African countries as well as Afghanistan, visiting prisoners, setting up emergency hospitals, and running feeding stations, all at great personal risk. Remaining as inconspicuous as possible - as one rebel leader in Afghanistan commented, "The best advice I can give you, Claire, is to look like a sack of potatoes" - she found ways of communicating with and supporting diverse communities, saving lives and bringing hope to those who felt forgotten amidst their suffering.

Educating others through her own experiences is also an important part of Claire Bertschinger's international contribution. Having served the Red Cross as a training officer, she graduated from Brunel with an MSc in Medical Anthropology, and now runs the Diploma in Tropical Nursing at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. At Brunel, on her own course, and in speaking engagements, Claire has inspired yet more people to take action against global injustice. And she continues to reach out to wider audiences with her book, Moving Mountains, about her own experience of suffering in war zones, supporting the African Children's Educational Trust with royalties from its sale.

In recognition of her tireless commitment to alleviating suffering, Claire Bertschinger has received the Florence Nightingale Medal, the Bish Medal for courage in the face of adversity, the Woman of the Year Window to the World award, and the International Human Rights and Nursing Award. Claire Bertschinger is a most worthy recipient of an honorary degree of our University, too, and today we applaud her exceptional and generous assistance to the world's poor and her ability to inspire by her actions as well as her by her words and her teaching.

Pro-Chancellor, in recognition of her outstanding services to the international community, it gives me great pleasure to present to you Claire Bertschinger, for the degree of Doctor of Social Sciences, honoris causa.

Professor Maureen Moran 15 July 2008

Claire Bertschinger

Page last updated: Monday 20 September 2010