Dr. Tom Catena in Boston (Photo: Aram Arkun)

Dr. Tom Catena Saves Lives in Nuba Mountains, Inspiring Aurora Humanitarian Initiative


BOSTON — If you see him on the street in Boston, 54-year-old Thomas Catena may not seem different from any other guy. But Dr. Tom Catena is no ordinary person. He was chosen by Time magazine in 2015 as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. He has exerted extraordinary efforts to provide medical assistance to people in need in Africa and is an inspiring role model for those who wish to do humanitarian work. In December 2018, he was named as chairman of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative. As such, he had come to Boston as part of an outreach tour at the end of January 2019, with several university talks and meetings.

Catena grew up in Amsterdam, a town in upstate New York, as the fifth of seven siblings. After graduating Brown University, he went to medical school at Duke University on a US Navy scholarship. After his internship he served for four years as a flight surgeon for the Navy. Although he did his military service to finance his education, he ended up liking the sense of purpose and community and if he had not wanted to work in the mission field in Africa, he said that he would have stayed longer.

Armine Barkhudaryan from Armenia and Tom Catena at the Mother of Mercy Hospital (photo courtesy Aurora Humanitarian Initiative)

He said he always liked reading about other societies and cultures as a youth, but as a Catholic, he felt a calling to do missionary work when he was in college. He pointed out that having four older brothers already married with children made it easier for his parents to support his doing this work, no longer feeling the need to push him for grandchildren.

Catena did several short medical mission trips in 1997 and 1998, and after completing his residency in 1999, worked in Kenya with the Catholic Medical Missionary Board (CMMB) as a missionary doctor until 2007. He then helped found the Mother of Mercy Hospital in the village of Gidel in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan in 2008. He has been the only doctor permanently based in this region of South Kordofan, serving as many as 750,000 people, and remained there after fighting broke out between the Khartoum-based government and the Nuba people several years later, in what many call a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Patients trekked there for all types of diseases and medical problems, to which were added war and famine victims.

Dr. Tom Catena at Mother of Mercy Hospital where he has lived and worked since 2008 in the Nuba Mountains of South Kordofan, Sudan, April 7, 2012.

Already isolated due to its geography, the Nuba region became even more difficult of access for international humanitarian organizations during the fighting and a blockade by the Sudanese government. Fortunately, the conflict has been quiet for a year and a half. Catena explained that the biggest problem for access now is that the roads are terrible. In the dry season, it would take six hours to make it from the hospital to beyond the mountains, but during the rainy season from May to the end of October the roads turn to mud and it is tricky to get out due to flooding.

Due to lack of resources, deprived of most of the tools of modern technology, Catena has had to improvise or use outmoded forms of treatment. Often working around the clock in extremely difficult situations, he has saved many lives and is locally revered by Christian and Muslim alike according to most accounts. New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof reported a few years ago in a column about him titled “‘He’s Jesus Christ’” (https://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-hes-jesus-christ.html) that he did all this on a salary of only $350 a month, with no pension or health insurance.

Dr. Tom Catena receiving the Aurora Prize in Yerevan, May 2017 (photo courtesy Aurora Humanitarian Initiative)

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Aurora Humanitarian Initiative

The Aurora Humanitarian Initiative (https://auroraprize.com/en/prize/detail/about) that Catena chairs is called by its three Armenian founders, Noubar Afeyan, Ruben Vardanyan and Vartan Gregorian, “gratitude in action” on behalf of the descendants of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and includes among its components the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, the Aurora Dialogues, the Aurora Humanitarian Index, the Gratitude Projects and the 100 Lives Initiative. Catena came to this position by first being selected as the 2017 Aurora Prize laureate in May of that year—in other words, he was one of the “modern-day saviors” whom the Aurora founders wished to empower in the humanitarian field. In recognition of the courage and commitment he evinced in his work, he received a $100,000 grant and was able to give a further $1 million to encourage organizations of his choice. He chose the African Mission Healthcare Foundation (USA), the Catholic Medical Mission Board (USA), and Aktion Canchanabury (Germany).

Now, Catena said, “In the role as chairman, I think what the fund is looking for is more or less for someone to be the public face of Aurora.” As such, he already is raising the profile of Aurora by representing it at various functions, including public events, speaking engagements, meetings, and press interviews.

Tom Catena in Armenia (photo courtesy Aurora Humanitarian Initiative)

While perhaps too modest to say this himself, a public relations assistant pointed out that Catena can inspire people to take action and is an excellent role model. As an American, he can show Americans and other Westerners that it is indeed possible to make a great difference in peoples’ lives through personal sacrifice and commitment, whether as a doctor or in other fields.

Furthermore, as Catena and the other Aurora finalists and laureates are evidence of what Aurora is doing now, hopefully people will wish to give resources to support this type of work and these types of individuals.

Catena added that his work included helping to plan for the future work of Aurora and help formulate new ideas. He said, “A lot of it, the way I see it, is also advising Aurora on how to proceed and what to do as a humanitarian organization. Right now, we have the Aurora Prize, but what else does it mean to be Aurora? In what direction do we want to go?”

To avoid duplication of the efforts of others, Catena is trying to learn what others are doing and seeing how Aurora can fit in. He said, “I think for Aurora, at least for now, we are interested more in direct support and direct aid to small people.” In other words, not being a large organization like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Aurora can work on the grassroots level in a nimble fashion. Whether it can later take on more of an advocacy role remains to be seen.

Dr. Catena at Tufts Medical Center with medical student Ian Brooks, left, and lecture organizer Dr. Knarik Arkun (photo courtesy Aurora Humanitarian Initiative)

Catena has been out of the Sudan for three months and aside from his speaking engagements with the public, has begun meeting with nongovernmental organizations, United Nations organizations, World Health Organization (WHO), and many other international actors, gathering information about what they do and seeing how Aurora fits in the whole humanitarian sphere.

In effect, there are three groups of people with whom Catena is talking during his present tour. Aside from the humanitarian sector there are also religious groups (for example, while at the University of Southern California in February he spoke at the Caruso Catholic Center) and Armenians.

When asked why he would take time from his work in the Sudan to which he is so dedicated, he replied, “I was interested in working with Aurora to take it to a more global scale, or if not global, at least in an African context.” He said that perhaps he could duplicate what was being done in Nuba elsewhere and would like to highlight people doing similar work in different places and get them resources so they can extend what they are doing to broader communities.

He said that the UN and large organizations do not have a presence in places like Nuba, which are closed off, so that if you can provide information from people already working in isolated conflict zones and other neglected areas, this is already a very useful function.

The Aurora planning process will take time. Catena said, “I have a long view of this stuff. It will take a few years to really get solidified in what we are exactly doing, but I think we are off to a good start. We have learned quite a bit over the past couple of months. I think Aurora has some very doable and workable ideas in this context and will add something to the humanitarian sector.”

Dedicated to Nuba

While accepting his position at Aurora, Catena has not stopped doing his work in Nuba. He will go back and forth. At present he has been out for over three months but will return there in early March. While in Nuba he anticipates communicating through email and Skype for Aurora work but will not be able to physically leave during six months. Then from September to November, Catena will be out in the broader world again.

His commitment to Nuba is such that even when he left to receive the Aurora Prize in 2017, he set as a condition for the trip finding replacement doctors. Aurora was able to find three Armenian doctors who came to the Sudan for about two weeks.

Temporary physician replacements from Armenia, from left, Gevorg Voskanyan, Armine Barkhudaryan and Hayk Hovhannisyan with Tom Catena in the Mother of Mercy Hospital (photo courtesy Aurora Humanitarian Initiative)

At present, there is a pediatrician who has joined the hospital in Nuba for a couple of years, but when Catena travels, he always has to find replacements for himself. Right now, while he is abroad, there are three different doctors hired on contract from Uganda for a three-month period to cover surgery, adult medicine, and other medical work. Catena is still looking for volunteers to come out for the next three-month period as volunteers, including a surgeon and a general doctor for maternity care, but if there are no volunteers the Ugandans will have to be hired again.

Catena is not just a physician in Africa, but also a Catholic missionary. However, his approach is not a direct and aggressive one. He prefers, he said, “to inspire people by your actions,” and likes an expression attributed to St. Francis, whether or not it may be apocryphal. St. Francis supposedly said, according to Catena, to preach always, and sometimes use words. Catena said, “First you show the love of Christ by your actions, then with time you talk in a quiet way, not with a lot of loudness and too many words. Your faith will speak for you.” Catena also, incidentally, says he has a great appreciation of Armenian Christianity.

His understated approach allows him to work with all kinds of organizations, and he similarly sees Aurora as bringing together people of all religious beliefs. He said, “The way I see it, Aurora is a secular organization which allows for the expression of different faiths. … For Aurora, humanitarianism is something that can cross faiths, hopefully celebrating the good in each of them.” He noted as an example that the last Aurora laureate chosen is a Muslim.

His personal view on the Armenian Genocide is that “the more things are shoved under the rug, the easier it is to have them happen again.” In other words, education and the work for justice for the Armenian Genocide are important for ongoing genocides as in Darfur and Nuba or of the Rohingya.

Catena has seen that dehumanization, often through tradition or religion, can lead people to commit genocide. He said, “The only counterweight to that is to bring it out in the open, recognize it and somehow try to forgive what has happened. Then you can start to go on track again. Otherwise all you have is revenge.” Revenge killings and feuds are a big problem, he said, in the South Sudan, though not where his hospital is.

For the Nubans, the main issue is the ethnic problem, with the people they call Arabs, who have oppressed them. One way he thinks for the Nuba to overcome the situation of being treated as inferiors is to become really good at something so that the others come to them for help. The medial work of the hospital is one example that reaches throughout Sudan, and people before the fighting did come long distances for their help.

To those who wish to do humanitarian work all their lives, Catena advises that there are going to be sacrifices along the way. He said, “Forget about living a Western lifestyle. Forget about having a Western life. Forget about the family that you grew up with. All of this is sacrifice.”

He said that all of this is weighed against what you want to do. He has gotten used to the life in Nuba. He said, “The living conditions for some people might be intolerable, but not for me. I prefer living in that environment.”

He continued, “The sacrifice for me comes with not seeing the family for three years, and not seeing my nephews and nieces grow up.  I am older and we don’t have any kids yet so I have missed out on all that stuff. You have to accept some of these things if you want to do it long term. It is really up to the individual.”

However, it is not necessary for everyone to go to this extreme and there are other levels or ways to help. Catena said that many people work in the field for several years after finishing their studies, and then return to their homes in the West. Though they cannot do all that can be done on the spot, they can continue to work at an administrative level for humanitarian organizations. Other people contribute financially after switching fields.


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