Newsbites McGill University

| Skip to search Skip to navigation Skip to page content

User Tools (skip):

Sign in | Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Sister Sites: McGill website | myMcGill

McGill News
ALUMNI QUARTERLY - winter 2008
McGill News cover

| Help
Page Options (skip): Larger

Tales of the Taliban

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

Sally Armstrong, BEd'66, is uncompromising on the question of human rights abuses, a subject she has written and made documentaries about since the 1980s. Recently named a special representative to UNICEF, Armstrong was in Montreal in November to give a talk before leaving on a mission to Afghanistan. "They want me to find out what's happening to the children there, then come back and raise hell about it," she said.

Armstrong described an earlier trip to the region, where she learned first hand of the plight of women living under Taliban rule. Women were forbidden to work or go to school, but they also had to paint over their windows so as not to be seen by passersby. This particular edict, along with the rule that women must be completely covered by the heavy burka, has resulted in bone damage from vitamin D deficiency because of the lack of sunlight. Women caught outside the home with anyone who is not a male relative may be punished by stoning. Guilty parties are taken to the Hall of Justice and buried up to their shoulders in a pit, and there's an even grislier twist: no single stone may be large enough to cause death.

These horrors have come into sharp focus since September 11. The sense that we will never be the same may be "the single silver lining" of those terrible events, according to Armstrong. "Maybe we'll stop thinking that terrorism is something that happens to someone else. We let it go in the name of the TSE or the GNP. We dismiss people in places like Afghanistan, Rwanda and Bosnia as 'others,' and we think they can somehow handle things better than we can."

She also called for urgent reform of the United Nations to better deal with international conflict and the resulting aid crises. "The UN was made for the conditions after World War II -- times have changed."

If Armstrong hasn't yet come back and raised hell, she has issued some strong warnings. Writing from Islamabad, where "the best minds in the disaster business" met to formulate a rescue plan for the Afghan people when America began its bombing campaign, she says little has changed for "the most desperate people on Earth." According to her Globe and Mail article, "The United Nations Children's Fund has identified a caseload of one million little kids who need help. We fear 100,000 children will die if aid doesn't reach them before winter sets in." And though she says truck convoys have started to roll, she echoes the calls for careful, long-term political strategies as the only way to assure relief. "Humanitarian aid isn't a matter of pushing sacks of wheat out of the back of an airplane.... Unstable governments and failed institutions are what really kill people, especially children."

Row, Row, Row Your Boat

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

Two new rowing shells -- valued at over $50,000 -- got a good dousing with champagne at a special ceremony in September. Led by a piper, the heavyweight men's and women's boats were hoisted into the air by McGill University Rowing Club members and marched from the Roddick Gates through the lower campus. The women's boat was purchased with an insurance settlement after one was irreparably damaged last year, while the men's boat was paid for by donations from former rowers. Members of the current 80-strong McGill Crew chipped in to help buy 32 new oars. Crew president Philip Hedrei, BSc'97, MDCM'00, credits the "amazing generosity of our vast rowing alumni network" who provide the primary financial support for the team. Originally set afloat in 1924, the club has garnered many a medal and produced many a national athlete since then.

Buddying up

Photo PHOTO: Owen Egan

Logistics. Whether you're a student who's just arrived from Bangladesh or Bolivia, logistical concerns begin to pile up as soon as you get to Montreal. You'll need to buy a bus pass, find a cheap place to take a cardio-funk class, set up your utility payments. For an international student, deciding to apply to McGill might be easy enough, but overall integration into the University and the surrounding community can be a challenge.

Helping to overcome it is the International Student Services' Buddy Program. A buddy is a returning McGill student who acts as a primary contact person for the newcomer, revealing secrets like where to find the quietest library on campus or the best bar for salsa dancing in the city. This September, the Buddy Program received about 677 requests from international students wishing to be paired up with a knowledgeable McGill student.

Angela An is a first-year science student from Seoul, Korea. "I was a typical young, scared freshman student who didn't know anyone living in Canada," she says. "I was really worried and scared." Then Kirsten Niles emailed An and introduced herself as her buddy.

"Kirsten offered me help with University matters," An enthuses. "And she told me so much about little details of life in Montreal that it made me finally believe that people are actually living happily here, without worrying too much about factors like crime, snow, and having to call MARS for registration."

Asmita Banerjee, a master's student in commercial law at McGill, is at the head of volunteer recruitment for the program. Banerjee maintains that the number one concern for international students is finding housing.

"It's a huge problem in Montreal for all students," she says. "It's terribly tough to come here, to be in a place you don't know, when the first thing you have to do is look for housing." Soaring rents in the student ghetto and surrounding area are pushing affordable housing farther from campus, causing extra stress for newcomers.

Homesickness and isolation are also big concerns for the program. "More confident students tend to fend for themselves and seek out student services. But many students new to Montreal suffer in silence," Banerjee says. Undergraduates like An who are housed in residence and have an opportunity to meet many people have an easier time, she adds, but graduate students "may find it harder to establish lines of communication."

International Student Advisor Pauline L'Ecuyer says that McGill's program, which has been in place for 14 years, is one of the oldest in Canada. "So far we've attracted 300 volunteers, with some taking on more than one student. We've matched about half of the total of international students," she says.

And thanks in part to her buddy, An is settling in nicely. Niles has even introduced her to the Fine Arts Core Education Orchestra, where the two girls now share a music stand during rehearsals. "She was a great psychological support for me," says An. "I would like to help other newcomers the way she did."

view sidebar content | back to top of page