For almost half of her life, Dr. Samantha Nutt has worked in a war zone. Even before establishing War Child Canada in 1999, she was on the ground with Unicef, helping alleviate the effects of conflict. Pain, tragedy, displacement, fear, death – these are part of Nutt’s daily vernacular. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“I don’t know how not to do it,” she says. “I believe so passionately in tolerance, reason, social good, social responsibility and our capacity to have empathy and connect with another through our common humanity,” she explains. That incorrigible passion has proven an invaluable asset not only in the daily grind but in Nutt’s role as a much-sought after media commentator, including as regular panelist on CBC’s The National.
There may be underlying factors at work, too. “I guess I’ve always been kind of scrappy, maybe because I’m short, maybe because my last name is Nutt,” she says with a laugh.
And age certainly helps. “I think something extraordinary happens when you turn 40 and you just stop looking for approval and permission,” she says with a smile. “One of the most glorious things about aging is that you get a much stronger sense of who you are; you’re less afraid and your confidence just builds. It’s very liberating.”
It also makes for a bold, fearless and empowered activist. “When people are being cruel, I’m just programmed to jump into the fray and defend what I believe in. It would be a lot easier if I didn’t feel that way.”
Perhaps so, but it would certainly make it harder for War Child to meet its mission of helping hundreds of thousands of children every year in war-affected areas, with education, training and access to justice. As the face of that mission and a bestselling author, Nutt has grown the organization’s reach and impact, leading to her appointment to the Order of Canada in 2011, among other accolades.
And she’s done it while maintaining her roles as assistant professor at the University of Toronto, Fellow at Massey College, public health specialist and family medicine physician at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto for more than 20 years. As to how she juggles it all? She doesn’t. “I don’t juggle anything. I wake up every day and deal with whatever is on fire,” she admits. “I frequently feel so over-extended that I’m not sure I’m doing anything well, but I think that’s a 21st-century condition that many can relate to, especially working parents,” Nutt adds, crediting her strong team at War Child Canada and USA for their exceptional work on the day- to-day management.
It’s also one of the reasons she remains so committed to her Thursday night and Friday sessions at the hospital, a position she particularly enjoys for its comparatively simper goal and straightforward asks. “In many ways it’s the complete opposite of the other part of what I do, which often seems so big and irreversible.”
Yet, big and irreversible seem to be her thing. To be sure, the obstacles in her way have taken on a whole new dimension over the years. Security, for one, has become far more intense than when she started out in Somalia in her early twenties. It used to be you could travel in a clearly marked NGO car and be afforded a certain safety net. Today, attacks on aid workers make the job of getting to people in need much more complicated and often life-threatening. It’s one of the reasons War Child has tweaked its model, focusing less on bringing foreigners overseas and more on building up local capacity and long-term partnerships.
People are good at reacting to emergency situations but when issues appear less immediate, there’s a tendency to move onto the “next big urgency.” That is, until images of toddlers washing up on beaches has them wondering how that could have happened. But, with her front-row seat at the world’s calamities, watching them barrel towards her “like an avalanche,” Nutt never ceases to be amazed at that reality. “For me professionally, now that I’m entering my 24th year of doing it, that’s the most frustrating part, the biggest challenge,” she says of the need to get people to adopt a long view of the need for preventative measures.
She finds hope in War Child’s success stories, though. Watching kids return to school. And once-functionally illiterate women find employment thanks to literacy, numeracy and market-based skills training. Nutt is particularly encouraged by how these opportunities have a generational impact.
Just five years after the most vulnerable Afghani women started attending educational and vocational-training programs, their children boast a 90% enrolment rate. That generational disruption is powerful. “You can disrupt war when there are alternatives on offer and when you’re doing a lot of different things at once – when you’re ending impunity, working with those communities, helping to create the foundation for stability.”
Nutt remains grateful for the successes and the 250 people who work with War Child, some based out of its Canadian and American offices, most working on the ground (with many coming from war zones themselves).
But what gets to her most is when she can’t raise enough money or connect effectively with prospective supporters. “That’s the hardest part for me, emotionally, because it’s very personal; I know just how painful and hard that is for those folks relying on it.”
That personal investment can also make it hard to find a place in both her worlds. “When I am overseas I am a witness, a doctor, a friend. I am there to listen and support. When I am home, my job is to advocate, to raise money, to ensure we can fulfill our commitments to those on the ground.” That reconciliation can be challenging. “Sometimes after being in a war zone I feel terribly disconnected from normal things,” she admits, sharing how at a recent get-together the day after returning from Iraq, it was difficult to find points of commonality even among friends she adored. But after so many years, that period of adjustment is well-trod and anticipated. “It’s familiar to me and that alone is comforting in ways that it couldn’t be when I was younger.” She also knows by now that, “being a lecturing, self-righteous pain in the ass doesn’t advance the cause so I don’t wear it like a badge.”
And no matter what happens out there, she is always grateful for the home and “peaceful, beautiful country’ to which she gets to return. “However hard this work may sometimes be, what I’ve lived through isn’t even a fraction as hard as what those left behind are forced to confront every day. When you remember that you get over yourself pretty quickly.”