Passionate. Courageous. Kind. Funny. This is how colleagues, classmates, and his widow describe Jean-Sélim Kanaan MPP 1996, the 2023 recipient of Harvard Kennedy School’s Alumni Public Service Award.
Twenty years ago, on August 19, 2003, Kanaan was among 22 United Nations humanitarian workers who perished in the terrorist attack against the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. He had just returned to the mission after spending a month home in Geneva with his wife, Laura Dolci, as she gave birth to their child. Kanaan was only 33 years old when he died.
“He touched so many lives in the short period he was on this planet,” says Dolci, who has continued to work for the U.N. “How many more would he have touched, had he lived?” The observation is not an understatement. Kanaan had been working to help people in conflict zones before and after graduating from college. In his book My War Against Indifference (published less than a year before his death), he wrote: “I was more determined than ever when, in 1992, I signed up for a humanitarian mission in Somalia, a country devastated by war and famine. To this day, I still wonder what made me give up my family and friends, and my comfortable life between Paris and Rome for such a plunge into the unknown.”
Born in Italy, Kanaan was the son of a French mother and an Egyptian father who served as a diplomat with the U.N.’s Food and Agricultural Organisation. His international upbringing, which included time in Italy, China, and France, gave him an aptitude for languages: He spoke Italian, French, English, Spanish, Arabic, and Serbo-Croat. As he noted in his book, “I was an Arab, a Christian, and a Westerner rolled into one. … I felt equally at home in Paris, Rome, Sarajevo, Peking, Bihać, Pristina, and New York.”
Kanaan was deeply affected by the violence he witnessed, first in Somalia and then during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina—and he was angered that the NGOs he worked for did nothing to help employees with the mental health impacts of their experiences. He wrote in his book, “When someone broke down, he had to cope with his nightmare on his own.” It was something the U.N. would improve in later years but, nevertheless, remains insufficient, according to Dolci.
In 1994, Kanaan arrived at the Kennedy School, where Laila Manji MPP 1996 and he became fast friends. “He knew from a very young age that he wanted to serve vulnerable populations,” Manji says, “and by the age of 25—when he joined the Kennedy School—he had already worked in communities caught in the middle of brutal conflict. He was burning with rage at inhumanity and injustice—and that was his purpose at school. Everything he learned to do was to equip himself in his professional life to lead so that he could make a difference for these communities.”
Kanaan’s classmate Michael Burke MC/MPA 1995, who was an officer in the U.S. Navy, recalls their conversations about U.S. foreign policy: “It was all good discussion and good friendship. And that’s part of what being at the Kennedy School is for—to hear those different perspectives and have people from different segments that impact public policy and humanitarian missions and foreign policy so that everybody has a benefit of how other people approach these things.”
After graduating from HKS, Kanaan realized his lifelong dream: to follow in his late father’s footsteps to a position at the United Nations. Christophe Bouvier was heading the new U.N. Office for Project Services when he hired Kanaan. In a twist of fate, Bouvier had known Kanaan’s father when they worked together in the U.N. Development Programme in China—and he believed that Kanaan’s experience in Bosnia would help build peace in the Balkans after the Dayton Agreement was signed.
Eventually, after serving in New York, Kanaan was assigned to another hot spot—Baghdad in the wake of the U.S. invasion. In one of his last letters to his wife, he wrote, “The common denominator of these last few days is a feeling of insecurity. We had to change hotels because the Sheraton seems to be on the list of possible targets for a major attack such as a car or bus bombing. … I am sure there is nothing to worry about, but I don’t want to go out much anymore. ... Above all, we cannot abandon for the umpteenth time the Iraqi people who have been left in a dead-end to deal in silence with their pain and the most abject injustice. It is our duty to reach out with no ulterior motive other than to promote peace.”
When accepting the Alumni Public Service Award on behalf of her late husband, Dolci said, “Jean-Sélim’s fearless and generous spirit lives on. He considered the hyphen in his name, between Jean and Sélim, a symbolic bridge between different cultures. His son proudly carries the same in his own name. He, along with many talented and courageous young people, will—I’m sure—endeavor to build stronger and innovative bridges for the well-being and sustainability of our humanity and planet.”
Photography provided by the family of Jean-Sélim Kanaan.