20th Anniversary of Ryoichi Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund Program at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

Athens, Greece

It is a great honor to be here today to celebrate with you this 20th anniversary of the establishment of the Sasakawa Young Leaders Fellowship Fund (Sylff) at the National and Kapodestrian University of Athens. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to everyone who has given so much time and energy to administering the program, especially Professor Teodosisi Pelegrinis (rector of the university), the other members of the Sylff steering committee, and to all the Sylff fellows.

The Sylff program was inaugurated in 1987 with the purpose of nurturing leaders who will tackle various global challenges and contribute to the peace and well-being of humankind.

In every age, humanity has faced a set of challenges. Our minds tend to focus on the more obvious problems that we can see and hear, but our world is lurking with hidden problems that are only found if we make a conscious effort.

Today, I would like to touch on this idea by sharing with you a personal experience. Several decades ago, I had the chance to visit a hospital in the Republic of Korea where I met with patients who had been affected by leprosy. This encounter opened my eyes to a world I had hitherto failed to see.

Leprosy has been one of the most misunderstood and stigmatized diseases known to humankind. Left untreated, it can cause external damage such as skin discoloration and deformities on the face, hands and feet. With no known cause, the appearance of the sufferers led many to believe that the disease was a curse or punishment from God.

When leprosy was identified as an infectious disease, various countries around the world enforced isolation policies to prevent further infection. Many people who came down with the disease were taken from their families and banished to islands or other remote locations. Such places included the islands of Mikonos and Spinalonga in the Aegean Sea. You may know Spinalonga in particular, because it was taken up in the book “The Islands.”

In the 1980s, an effective treatment was developed and the number of leprosy patients worldwide dropped dramatically. But the deep-rooted stigma and discrimination remained undiminished, as many people avoided seeking treatment and let their symptoms worsen out of fear that they would suffer discrimination.

The patients whom I met at the hospital in the Republic of Korea were suffering from this fate. Isolated and stripped of their basic human rights, all signs of hope had faded from their eyes.

What I learned for the first time that day was that many people like them exist: people who have been marginalized and forgotten by the world; people who are unable to speak from fear of discrimination; and people who have given up on speaking out after years of social exclusion.

I felt I had heard their voices, their silent voices. And it struck me that unless someone stood up and spoke on their behalf, their silent cries would never be heard. The thought of this was unbearable. This is what led me to a new path. Since then, I have acted as a voice for those affected by leprosy and have dedicated my life to the elimination of leprosy and the discrimination that it entails.

Many of us fail to acknowledge that our view of the world is shaped by what we unconsciously choose to see and hear. Unless we make the conscious effort to notice, the countless problems that exist around us will remain out of sight.

I wish for all of you to take notice of these hidden problems and address them. This persistent effort will nurture you into leaders who can contribute to the peace and well-being of humankind.

I hope the Sylff fellows will enjoy further success in your future endeavors and also wish the University of Athens continued success.

Thank you.