Gil was a great man in stature, in love and in intellect. His life was formed by the great events of history. As a historian and political scientist he had a deep understanding of this.
Gil was born in California, third generation German-American. His mother, Helene Aachen’s family was part of the rural labour that travelled across states in a covered wagon, farming the land, becoming American. His father Burt Loescher was a businessman and farmer.
As a young boy Gil’s home was in the Mission District in San Francisco. Later he and his elder brother Dave enjoyed the freedom of growing up on the Peninsula, roaming in the fields behind his house with his pet dog, Tippy. His memories of early childhood included his budgies, the ‘pancake’ tree in the playground and the local basketball court where he honed skills that would see him though his high school and college years. Gil’s skill and height (he was 6 feet 8 inches) on the court earned him a full college scholarship and was a lasting enjoyment in his life. His massive reach swept back other players as he made space for his move or the ‘pass’ which was, he always said, the most important part of the game: creating the space for others.
This generosity coupled with a desire to see the world, led Gil into an academic career. He earned a PhD in International Relations at the London School of Economics. He became a teacher and a motivator who always valued his interaction with his students. He was also ambitious. It was the humanity in the subject matter that drove him. He was part of the first Western friendship visit with SACU (Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding) to China in 1971 as its borders opened, travelling across Russia and into China by train and experiencing at first hand a country and its people so long hidden by the world. The war in Vietnam and its effect on the geo-political movements of the Far East, helped plant the seed for his new interest in worldwide refugee studies and migration which became his expertise for the rest of his prolific career.
In 1975, he joined the Political Science Department at the University of Notre Dame in a temporary one-year position and ended up as a professor, staying for twenty-five years. His career more recently included European Council on Refugees and Exiles, International Institute for Strategic Studies, and Open Democracy. He had been a visiting fellow at the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University since 2003. He has written numerous, highly regarded books, articles and chapters on the refugee crisis over the past thirty years and is rightly regarded as an expert in the field.
Gil was never an armchair academic. Whenever he could he took the opportunity to travel to the people about whom he was writing. In his career he visited refugee camps all over the world. His close friend and colleague James Milner writes,
“He always started an interview by taking time to find out more about the person he was interviewing – who they were, where they were from, where they were last posted. Gil cared deeply about his fellow human beings.”
It was this empathy and drive to discover and disseminate the truth that sent Gil to visit the head of the United Nations in Baghdad in August 2003. He was not a close colleague of Sergio Viera de Mello’s and had never been employed by the United Nations. He was visiting as an independent advisor shortly after the war in Iraq was over. On the fateful day that he met with Sergio and his team, Gil found himself, once again, deeply affected by the great movements of history. The United Nations headquarters in Baghdad was bombed by a terrorist.
Gil’s survival was nothing short of a miracle. He was buried in the rubble for four and a half hours during which time his crushed legs were amputated. He was airlifted to a military hospital in Germany and spent the following three months in intensive care in his home town of Oxford. Gradually he got accustomed to life in a wheelchair with the help of his family, his career at Oxford, his daily swimming regime, his love of good wine, and his writing. He lived for nearly seventeen years as a double above-the-knee amputee and struggled, with courage, through the many obstacles that placed in his path.
Gil was a son, a husband, a father, an uncle, a cousin, a grandfather. He was my father. It is never easy being the daughter of a great man, but my sister Claire and I were fortunate that he was a man with lots of love and generosity, who wanted to impart his knowledge to us.
He met our mother, Ann Dull in 1969 in London. And she was his wife, best friend, often his editor, and later in life his patient carer. Together they travelled to many places, shared a love of photography and made homes in London, South Bend and Oxford. As a family who moved for Gil’s career, we were very close, depending on each other for company and inspiration. He was incredibly thankful for surviving the Bagdad bomb in order to be part of his growing family. When buried in the rubble of the United Nations in Iraq, he said to his rescuer, Bill von Zehle, when he told Gil he needed to amputate his legs,
“Whatever you need to do to get me back to my family.”
The global refugee exodus and rise of the far right in recent years troubled Gil greatly and added to a deterioration in his health. In recent years he suffered from heart failure and his hearing and eye-sight were failing him. As his immediate surroundings gradually faded with his sensory loss, his four grandchildren were still a great joy to him but he has worried about the world in which they are growing up.
On April 28th, after a short stay in hospital, Gil died from heart failure in the midst of a global pandemic which kept us from being with him. His latest book, A Very Short Introduction to Refugees, Oxford University Press, was in its final edit when he died.
It has sometimes felt that the agony of the world has had deep consequences for my father. I began this piece by writing – ‘Gil’s life was formed by the great events of history.’ In his life and in his death my father has taught me that life does not happen to us. We are life. The mistakes that have been and are being made are our mistakes. And the love that is inside us to fix those mistakes is bountiful and endless.
We are the movements of peoples across continents.
We are the world wars.
We are the holocaust.
We are apartheid.
We are the Rwandan genocide.
We are climate change and we are Extinction Rebellion.
We are the resilience of the family who takes to the road, across the mountains, through the frontline by foot, bicycle, truck, train, donkey, boat, who risk all for the continuation of the life of a few.
We are the illness and we are the cure.
We are the scent underneath the sequoia, great redwoods and Atlantic cedars in the forests of northern California.
We are the salt in the Pacific Ocean.
We are the rising sun on the Himalayas.
We are each other.
That is what Papa has taught us.
In memoriam: Professor Gil Loescher, 1945-2020. A tribute from Professor Guy S. Goodwin-Gill, Andrew & Renata Kaldor Centre for International Refugee Law, UNSW