Donny George Youkhanna, an internationally renowned archaeologist and Stony Brook professor of Asian and Asian-American studies who had fought for the recovery of antiquities in his homeland of Iraq, died last Friday after suffering a heart attack at a Toronto airport. He was 60.
Youkhanna, known as Donny George professionally, served as director general of the National Museum in Baghdad and chairman of the Iraqi State Board of Antiquities and Heritage. He had drawn worldwide acclaim as he sought to protect Iraq's remaining artifacts and track down items looted after the American-led invasion in 2003.
As members of the Assyrian Christian minority, he and his family fled Iraq to settle on Long Island, where he joined the Stony Brook faculty as a visiting professor in 2006. Youkhanna had a longtime collaboration with Stony Brook anthropology professor Elizabeth Stone and the university had been able to secure funding from the Scholar Rescue Fund, a program of the Institute of International Education, to help finance Youkhanna's appointment.
"It is an irreparable loss of a treasure in mind, soul, scholarship and experience," Stony Brook Provost Eric W. Kaler wrote in a statement sent earlier this week to faculty and staff. "He truly epitomized qualities of kindness, humility, compassion and gentleness in every action."
Born in Habbania, Al-Anbar province, Iraq, on Oct. 23, 1950, Youkhanna earned his bachelor's degree at Baghdad University in 1974 and joined the staff of the Iraq Museum. While working there, he earned his master's and PhD degrees in prehistoric archaeology from the University of Baghdad. Before becoming director general, he had served as director of research and studies.
He also had a distinguished career in archaeological fieldwork and earned many awards and honors from several groups for his efforts, including a lifetime honorary membership in the Archaeological Institute of America. He lectured worldwide, wrote and co-authored several books, and was a member of the International Regional Committee of the Interpol, Middle East.
In 2008, he was honored with a Beacon Award by SAFE/Saving Antiquities for Everyone, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving cultural heritage worldwide that lauded Youkhanna for devoting "a large part of his scholarly career to raising awareness of the problems of looted antiquities," according to the group's website.
Youkhanna taught numerous courses on West Asia and Mesopotamian civilization at Stony Brook, where he would inject real-world experience into the most dry of topics for his students, Stone said.
"They really all are brokenhearted," Stone said. "He was one of the sweetest guys in the world, a real charmer. I think everybody who met him was taken with him."
Surviving are his wife, Najat, and three children, Steven, Martin and Mariam. Services will be held 10 a.m. Saturday at the Mar Gewargis Church in Chicago.
"He loved his job, he loved his family, he loved his people and he loved Iraq, his home country," said his son Steven.