A Conversation with Dennis Looney | Local Vocal | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

A Conversation with Dennis Looney

Emergency USA (www.emergencyusa.org) is the U.S. branch of Emergency, an Italy-based group that builds hospitals and provides medical care for civilian victims in war-torn lands. Currently the group operates in countries including Afghanistan, Cambodia, Iraq and Sudan. Another focus is land mines, a ban on whose manufacture Emergency successfully pushed for in Italy. One local Emergency USA volunteer is Dennis Looney, a professor of Italian at the University of Pittsburgh. Last year Looney and his wife, Joanna Thornton, translated into English the book Green Parrots: A War Surgeon's Diary, by Emergency co-founder Dr. Gino Strada.


How did you learn of Emergency?

For one year, I worked as the acting director of [Pitt's] Center for West European Studies. Some graduate students said, "We want to put on an event about entrepreneurial work." I invited Alberto Colombi, who's a surgeon at PPG, to come and talk about Emergency as an example of entrepreneurial work, under the belief that entrepreneurial work can also be work that is good deeds.


And you got involved last year?

After I got to know Alberto Colombi, he said, "Gino Strada has written a book, and we need to have it translated as quickly as possible, because he's gonna come to America and try to raise money for the organization on a book tour." My wife and I did it as volunteers.


What's the title mean?

Green Parrots takes its name from a kind of land mine that the Russians designed -- and this is not to single out the Russians, because the Italians, the Americans, Chinese, every Western country and Eastern countries as well have designed landmines and planted them all over the place -- so that it looks kind of like a toy. It looks like a little plastic green parrot. And even more pernicious than that, it doesn't explode when you step on it or pick it up; it only explodes when it gets warmed up -- in someone's hand. So kids pick it up, they take it home, they toss it back and forth sort of like a Frisbee. Chemicals inside the two wings of the bird mix, and then it explodes. And so many of his patients in Afghanistan are children who've had either their leg blown off from stepping on a traditional land mine, or hands blown off, arms blown off from playing with one of the toy-landmines.


Does your volunteer work integrate with teaching?

Every year we have a course called the Capstone Course for Italian majors. We ran a sort of translation workshop. What the students practiced on was the Web journal of Emergency. It's called Peace Reporter. Doctors in the field are sending back reports in Italian from Afghanistan, from Kurdistan, Iraq, from Cambodia, from Sierra Leone, from wherever they are. We had a bunch of Italian majors translating reports.


It's a family affair now, too?

I think that not just me but my family has made a kind of leap. My wife is on the board of Emergency USA. Our daughter's at Barnard College in New York, and she's involved in the local organizations there that are promoting Emergency. My son, who's a senior at Mount Lebanon High School, is the real activist. He's created a group at Mount Lebanon called Emergency. They're not doing exactly what this Emergency does, but they're thinking of themselves as an organization that might do local things as well.


Why this relief work rather than something closer to home?

This was a way for me to do good deeds and at the same time work with my skill, which is Italian.


[Moreover,] there's something very painful about some of these topics because they show you the grisly reality of war and its impact on children. I just read in my class today, in Dante's Inferno, the very bottom of hell. At the very tip of hell is the devil. But that's sort of anticlimactic. It's the next-to-last episode that is the horrendous episode. It's about a father and four children who get locked up for political reasons and starved to death. And then [it's suggested] that the father eats the kids. The question is, is he accountable? I was trying to get the students to see that one reason Dante puts it there is that the worst thing any of us can imagine is children suffering. Innocent suffering. We all have to decide what we're going to focus our energies on, in terms of volunteerism. It's hard for me to think of something that needs more attention.

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