Remembering Donny George: A Tribute from SAFE


All those concerned about preserving our ancient past felt a chill down the spine upon hearing the news of Donny George’s sudden passing. Whether or not they knew him in person, a sense of loss was palpable within the community. On March 11, 2011, we lost a colleague and a friend. We also lost an eloquent advocate and a powerful—if gentle—warrior in the fight against the destruction of cultural heritage.

I met Donny for the first time at the 2005 AIA Annual Meeting in Boston. (Six years later this past January, Donny emailed from this year’s Meeting in San Antonio to tell me he was disappointed that there was no SAFE booth there.) In between attending sessions, Donny found respite at the SAFE booth. There, we chatted about how best to accomplish our mission. At our first major event at the booth, Donny offered his encouragement: “The work that SAFE is doing is critical, not only for Iraq’s cultural heritage, but also for the heritage of all mankind. All those who enjoy the benefits of democracy have a duty to stand up and support those actions that will stop the destruction of history.” These words will stay with me forever.

Months later, SAFE was invited to spend a day in New York City with Donny and two of his colleagues from the Iraq Museum. We visited the New York Public Library and looked at some of their Ancient Near Eastern holdings, and shared an intimate dinner at one of our members’ apartment. At the end of the evening, Donny spoke about the dangers he faced, just to go to work. Every day, he said, his car had to take a different route to the Museum. As he expressed a sad uncertainty about the future, he invited us to visit Iraq one day. Donny had become a part of SAFE.

It was with great relief and joy that we welcomed Donny and his wife Najat to the US.,in a gathering of friends in 2007. That same day, Donny and Najat heard that his children, who were still in Damascus, would be joining them soon. The family had been separated in exile.

Donny’s interest in SAFE was not only in theory; he embraced our ideas with his time and action, and became a true partner. It was in this collaborative spirit that the Global Candlelight Vigil for the Iraq Museum was born. Since 2007, individuals and organizations around the world listened when Donny called on us to light a candle to memorialize the looting of the Iraq Museum: “Let’s gather together and see what we can do, so people will not forget what happened.” Donny also personally led vigils in New York and Chicago, and invited the staff of the Iraq Museum to join the campaign in 2007 and 2008.

Donny also participated in SAFE’s programs with a podcast interview, and two very special SAFE Tours in the halls of the Oriental Institute at the University of Chicago. Donny moved audiences at the Bancroft School and the Trinity Lutheran Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. In 2008, we were fortunate to have honored Donny with a SAFE Beacon Award.

He was genuinely interested in our work. One of the most special moments, was when Donny took a train from Stony Brook to attend a SAFE meeting in New York City, and sat with us—academics, professionals and students alike—chatting, and plotting our next strategies and programs. No matter how mundane the topic being discussed was, Donny was engaged and offered to help. He was one of the earliest members on our Facebook group, and served as an Advisor.

Donny GeorgeDonny was concerned about Iraq’s cultural heritage, he also advocated publicly for the cultural heritage of other nations. On behalf of Cyprus, he wrote a letter in support of the inclusion of coins in the US/Cyprus bilateral agreement in 2007. Two years later, he added his name to a Statement of Concern and Appeal for International Cooperation to Save Ancient Kashgar.

One of Donny’s greatest concerns was to prevent what happened to the Iraq Museum from happening to any other museums, anywhere else. Just this February, Donny spoke to me about the Cairo Museum: “Yes it was so painful, renewing every moment of those days in Iraq Museum. I sent an e-mail to Dr Zahi Hawass, showing my solidarity, and offering any help they need through his blog.”

We will miss working with Donny, but we are thankful that the work that we did together and his message will always stay with us. We heard you.

Cindy Ho
SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone

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