Teresa Sarti: A former teacher-turned-prominent humanitarian

The late Teresa Sarti co-founded Italian medical relief organization Emergency, which claims to have treated about 3 million war victims since 1994. Photo by: Teresa Sarti

EDITOR’S NOTE: The interview took place nearly a year before Teresa Sarti passed away Sept. 1, 2009, in Milan, Italy.

A boy running through the corridors of a Kurdish hospital after a prosthesis replaced the leg he had lost in a land mine blast. That’s the image Teresa Sarti bears in mind when she feels overwhelmed by obstacles and stress in what has become her life’s mission rather than job.

For more than 14 years, Sarti served as president of Emergency, an Italian medical nongovernmental organization that assists war victims in parts of the world where access to health care and hospitals is prevented by conflicts and violence.

Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan are just some of the countries where Emergency’s hospitals and clinics bring relief. But assisting civilians in such war-stricken places requires an enormous amount of effort for a volunteer organization that relies on private funding to sustain its slow growth after Italian war surgeon and Sarti’s husband, Gino Strada, founded it in Milan in 1994.

A previous high school history and philosophy teacher, Sarti had no medical experience and no previous involvement in the NGO sector, and only reluctantly agreed to be part of Strada’s project, along with five family friends.

“Emergency just came out of the blue on a New Year’s Eve while we were sitting around our kitchen table with some friends and Gino said he wanted to create a small, nimble and independent association to assist civilian war victims,” Sarti said, recalling how Emergency was conceived on the last night of 1993. “As a first reaction, we told him he was crazy.”

Now, 15 years after she gave in to her husband’s insistence, she regrets that Emergency was not created earlier.

“In times like these, when human values seem to have disappeared, at least we have Emergency. And my view in this sense is shared by thousands of people, including many youths, who call us every day. They are relieved to see that you can still find realities where your being against any kind of war is not merely rhetorical,” she said. “We know what war is, and we are fighting against it effectively.”

As Sarti speaks, her husband is working as a heart surgeon near Khartoum, Sudan, where Emergency founded and runs the Salam Center, a highly specialized cardiac surgery hospital that performs an average of 1,500 surgeries a year and has treated patients from 13 African countries and from Iraq - all for free.

Sarti and her husband have lived apart, even before Emergency was created, as Strada started working in war zones with the International Committee of the Red Cross more than 20 years ago.

“He thought it was going to be a six-month experience, but he hasn’t come back yet,” Sarti said.

Anxiety over the safety of Strada and other Emergency staff has become familiar and bearable over the years, although there were moments when Sarti struggled with fear, such as when her husband flew back to the organization’s hospital in Kabul, Afghanistan, to reopen it after it had been forcibly shut down following Sept. 11, 2001. Strada arrived there through a clandestine trip across Pakistan. He and some fellow Emergency doctors were the only Western citizens in the country when the U.S. bombings began a few weeks later.

Although she claims she is not a brave person, Sarti even managed to face fear over her husband and their only daughter’s lives when both left for Fallujah, Iraq, to assist its population while the city was under military siege in April 2003.

“Incredibly and luckily, one can get used to anxiety, although I did have some terrible moments,” Sarti said.

In these and other difficult times, Sarti is motivated by memories of particularly rewarding experiences with Emergency, like when she received a home video filmed by the Kurdish nursing staff of an Emergency hospital in Iraq. The video showed Soran - one of two 12-year-olds who were injured in a blast and to whom Sarti was particularly close - put on a leg prosthesis and started running.

“I have been turning to that vision of Soran for years when I feel that discomfort and stress are just too much to take,” Sarti said.

Another one of Sarti’s favorite memory concerns the 2007 opening of Emergency’s heart surgery clinic in Soba, about 20 kilometers from Khartoum. During the ceremony, which Sarti attended with Sudanese authorities, a local started shouting.

“I couldn’t understand what he was saying and thought he was angry at local governors,” she recalled.

But as the man finished his speech, a Sudanese doctor sitting next to Sarti translated the man’s words. He thanked Emergency for curing his 11-year-old daughter.

“For five years, he had been traveling across the country trying to get her treated, but everyone told him he had to pay $5,000 for the surgery she needed. And of course he didn’t have that kind of money. Then he found Emergency, who did it for free, and the girl is fine now,” Sarti said. “I’ll never forget the sound of his voice.”

According to Sarti, providing people with medical assistance they couldn’t otherwise afford means much more to them than just getting cured.

“In Europe, if a child is born with a cardiac malfunction or, as in this case, a rheumatic fever damages one of his heart valves, making it impossible for him to survive or to lead a normal life, we demand to find a hospital where he can be cured,” she said. “People in Sudan and other African countries can do it too now. Not only their children can be saved, but they get back their dignity by knowing that they are worth a medical center the standards of which are among the highest in the world.”

Sarti has the highest admiration for Emergency’s 150 or so volunteers, who trade relatively safe work and living arrangements with the constraints that come with working in some of the most dangerous locations on Earth. Especially in the three medical centers Emergency runs in Afghanistan, doctors and technical staff risk their lives every day as they travel between their home and work.

“Living there is really challenging,” Sarti said. “Our medical and engineering staff is amazing. They live a life between the hospital and their house. In Kabul, our staff’s house is just across the street from the hospital, and they can’t go anywhere else for security reasons.”

Safety requirements are similar for Emergency’s staff in Lashkar-gah, in the Helmand province, where NATO troops have been fighting the Taliban for almost two years. The situation is safer in the northern region of Panjshir, although even there, doctors are confronted with extreme situations such as car bombs and other attacks.

“A couple of days ago, 50 injured were taken to the hospital after a woman suicide bomber blew herself up on a bicycle. Ten were hospitalized later. The amount of work there is just massive,” Sarti said.

A constant state of anxiety is not the only downside to being the president of an organization such as Emergency.

“Since it was born, I haven’t had a private life. It’s much more than a full-time commitment,” said Sarti, a retired teacher who supports herself with her pension and works for Emergency on a volunteer basis, like some of the 35 senior staff members stationed in the organization’s Milan and Rome offices.

Emergency started as a small association run by about seven people where, as Sarti put it, “everyone had to do everything, from fundraising to promotion and organizing the first missions.” For a whole year, Sarti’s house served at the headquarters of the association, which soon turned into an NGO. Emergency, whose annual budget comes to $31 million, is now affiliated with the United Nations and with support groups in London, the United States and Switzerland.

Emergency’s growth came unexpectedly. Sarti credited it largely to hard work.

Running medical centers in countries such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Iraq, Sierra Leone and Cambodia demands a huge effort for an organization such as Emergency, which Sarti called “hand-made.” This is especially true since Emergency does not seek government funding. The organization also still recruits most of its volunteers in Italy because applicants can more easily be interviewed for positions advertised on Emergency’s website. Doctors, as well as engineers, administrators and logistic staff are constantly needed by the organization, which continually faces high turnover, especially due to leave restrictions in Italian hospitals.

Sarti said that volunteer work is easier for doctors from Northern Europe, as they can stay away from their hospitals for up to two years, while in Italy, they can’t take a leave lasting for more than a couple of months at a time. Sometimes, Sarti herself has to advise them against leaving their jobs to work in war zones.

“It’s difficult to get used to the daily hospital routine and profit-oriented bureaucracy again after you have worked in such places,” she said. “Sometimes, they come to me saying that they want to resign after their first mission with us because their clinics wouldn’t give them further leaves to serve as volunteers. And I tell them not to do that, because you need to serve in more than one mission in order to be sure that you can work with us permanently and vice versa.”

Despite these and other difficulties, Sarti said she would recommend a volunteer experience of this kind to all young doctors.

“It fills your profession with meaning and, although I was reluctant at the beginning, now I wish we had started Emergency beforehand, when we had more energy and strength.”

Although many development actors in Italy lament the country’s culture of cooperation, which is characterized by a lack of financial support to NGOs, Sarti remains convinced that the Italian civil society is very generous and committed.

“I can tell that Italians are very generous when it comes to solidarity, although scandals over corruption and waste let them down many times. If you show them difficult realities, tell them that they can help and prove to be professional and serious, then they are in,” she said.

Emergency relies on private donations, and the current economic climate is adding to the obstacles it - and others - face on a daily basis when it comes to getting funds for their activities.

“But even now, the number of our supporters has not decreased,” Sarti said. “They just cannot afford to donate as much as they did before.”

Sarti does not regret dedicating her life to the organization.

“I gave a lot to Emergency, but I got much more in return,” she said. “I had the chance to meet some extraordinary people, from our volunteers and supporters to our nurses and doctors.”

Her biggest reward, according to Sarti, is the knowledge that she, through Emergency, has helped treat people who couldn’t afford to pay for health care or were in desperate need of medical assistance in war-stricken regions.

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About the author

  • Tiziana Cauli

    Tiziana has contributed to Devex News since mid-2008, focusing mainly on Africa as well as the European donor landscape, especially those in Brussels, Rome and Barcelona. Tiziana has worked as a journalist for Reuters and the Associated Press in Johannesburg and at Reuters in Milan and Paris. She is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish.