Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Heroes You Should Know: Shelia Fedrick

Alaska Airline flight attendant Shelia Fedrick didn’t board the plane that fateful day in 2011 thinking she’d become a hero.  But soon after the flight from Seattle to San Francisco took off, Fedrick noticed the young girl with dishevelled clothing and greasy-blonde hair.  She looked like she’d been through hell.  Next to her was a well-dressed, much older man.  Fedrick’s instincts told her something was wrong, so she attempted to strike up a conversation with the two.  The girl remained silent while the man became defensive.  At that point, Fedrick devised a plan.

She went to the bathroom and pasted a note for the girl on the mirror.  Fedrick then returned to aisle 10 and whispered to the teen---whom she guessed was around 14 years-old---to visit the bathroom.  Once there, the girl found the note asking if she needed help.  The girl wrote on the note that she did.
Fedrick then notified the pilot, who quickly contacted law enforcement officers in San Francisco.  They were waiting for the man at the terminal when the flight landed.  He was questioned, taken into custody, and arrested.  And the fourteen year-old was saved from sex slavery.

Five years later, Fedrick and the girl she rescued---now a college student---are still in touch.

The International Labor Organization estimates that there are currently 4.5 million people trapped in the sexual slavery worldwide.  In 2016 2,000 people were arrested for human trafficking by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and 400 victims were freed.

Airline Ambassadors International, an organization that teaches flight attendants to look for signs of sex trafficking and provides training on intervention, is doing its best to ensure that there are more Shelia Fedricks in the not-always-friendly skies.  To date over 1,000 flight attendants have received this special training.

All angels fly.  And at least one wears a uniform.

Shelia Fedrick is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Rami Adham: The Syrian Santa

Most children would identify Santa’s home as the North Pole, but there is growing evidence that it might actually be in Finland.  Because that’s where 44 year-old Rami Adham lives. 

Five years ago, the Finnish national who emigrated from Syria in 1988, watched in horror from the safety of his home in Helsinki as footage of Aleppo was shown on television.  The graphic images of sorrow and agony produced by the bloody Syrian civil war moved Adham to do something.  That ‘something’ turned into a plan that sounded like a Christmas cartoon:  to smuggle toys, along with water, food, and medical supplies to the refugee children of Syria, starting with Aleppo---his birth city.  But unlike a holiday cartoon, if Rami was caught he would be killed.    

Since his decision in 2011 Adham---who has six children of his own---has flown to Turkey and then slipped over the mountainous border into Syria on thirty occasions.  He visits refugee camps in several different locations, and each time he carries with him hundreds of toys.  His sack, which can weigh up to 170 pounds, is stuffed with Barbie dolls, teddy bears, and even Buzz Lightyear.  During Ramadan alone, the ‘Syrian Santa’ smuggled in more than 700 toys.   

On some trips it’s too dangerous to drive so he walks---up to eight miles.  Depending on the location of the camp and the means of transportation, each trek can take between eight and sixteen hours.
All this effort and risk just to bring toys?  For Rami Adham, toys are exactly what’s called for because they remind the children that they still have childhoods, and that they haven’t been forgotten by the rest of the world.  

Today as many as 3 million children live in Syrian refugee camps.  Some go to school, but most work.  And death is everywhere.  In June, while visiting Aleppo, six orphaned children were killed while Adham was there.

To facilitate collection of toys for his trips to Syria, which now average one every two months, Rami has established the Finnish-Syrian AssociationAdditionally, the ‘toy smuggler’ has now set up a Go Fund Me campaign to build a school for the refugee children. In just two months, Adham has been able to raise over $66,000 of the $110,000 needed.

Santa appears to have traded in his red suit for mountain fatigues, presently has a brown beard, and now works year-round---but he most definitely still exists! 

And a weary world gives thanks.

Rami Adham is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Shyam Bihari Prasad

On a cold November morning three years ago, as Shyam Bihari Prasad entered his Hanuman Hindu Temple in Vasant Kunj New Delhi, India to pray, he was approached for the umpteenth time by the neighborhood’s poor children, begging for food and money.  But this time, as he gave them biscuits from his own lunch, a thought crossed his mind.  Instead of giving them charity that would last a few hours, why not offer something that would last a lifetime?  So the retired business manager decided to try something new---something that could truly alter the lives of these children.  Education.

He had discovered that the youths were either not able to go to school, or were frustrated in their learning by the limitations of the over-crowded and underfunded school system.  So he set up his own school, for any child who wanted to learn.  The sidewalk outside the Temple became his classroom, and his supplies initially consisted of one mat.  But what he had in abundance was the time and the patience to offer one-to-one instruction for each student.

So, from 8:00 to 11:00 A.M. five mornings a week, Prasad would teach children of all ages a variety of subjects.  At first he had to bribe them with chocolate and toffee to attend, but soon the students were coming on their own---the incentive to learn from a caring adult was enough.  Prasad earned the nickname “Uncle”, and his ‘school’ grew to thirty students.

The locals, noticing the charity work, began donating food and school supplies---mats, tables, chairs, textbooks, pencils, notebooks and paper, and easels.  Several adults even took over some of the teaching load. 

Presently the ‘sidewalk school’---stronger than ever---includes lessons in Math, Science, Spelling and Writing (of Hindi, and English).  And as distracting as the constant honking of cars and chatty foot traffic must be, the eager students stay amazingly focused. 

Along with higher test scores, Prasad has also observed an unanticipated benefit of his kindness---his children, at first verbally and even (on occasion) physically abusive toward each other, have become increasingly empathic and kind in their interactions.  They’re not only learning to be better students, their learning to be better human beings.

Prasad is motivated by the goal of giving these under-privileged youths as much of an opportunity for success as the children of the wealthy.  But wherever his students end up, they will have learned that they are lovable, and loved.  And that’s the most important lesson of all.

Shyam Bihari Prasad is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Sometimes the Greatest Champions Finish Second: Piotr Malachowski

Olympic athletes are blessed with a unique set of gifts, both physical and mental.  To be the best in the world at events that demand cat-like agility, Herculean-strength, marathon-endurance, and decades of machine-like discipline is worthy of respect.  But what if you combine all of these qualities with the empathy of a saint? 

You get Piotr Malachowski. 

Malachowski, a  6’4”, 290 pound two time Olympian won the silver medal in the Discus at the Rio Olympics last month.  But instead of adding the medal to his collection of awards, he decided to auction it off, in an effort to pay for the surgery of a young Polish boy he’d never met.  The child’s mother had written a desperate letter to Piotr as time was running out.

Three year-old Olek Szymanski has retinoblastoma, an eye cancer that effects children 5 years-old and younger, and he needed surgery to save his eyesight and his life.  The cost was estimated to be $126,000 and needed to be done in a special ophthalmic oncology clinic in New York.  Some money had already been raised, and Malachowski was hoping to raise the rest of what was needed---$84,000.  So he posted an online challenge to the world: 

I invite everybody to join the bidding. If you help me, my silver medal may be more valuable for Olek than gold."

After one week, the bidding had risen to $19,000, a significant amount, but still far short of the olympian’s goal.  And then Polish billionaire siblings Dominika and Sebastian Kulczyk stepped up and bought the medal for the full price.  And just like that Olek was on his way to New York.

As an added bonus, as if there was a need for one, more than 120,000 people have now also donated to Malachowski’s charity site SiePomaga, dedicated to raising money for children with catastrophic health crises.

Poland won eleven medals at the Rio Games, but all of them combined didn’t outweigh the significance of the one silver medal that saved a little boy’s life.

Sometimes the greatest champions finish second.

Piotr Malachowski is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Angel of Nanjing

The Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China is believed to be the most common location in the world for a suicide to occur. So it is there that 48 year-old Chen Si heads every weekend, to try and save lives.  This is not his job, but it is his vocation. 

There was a time when in the not-too-distant past that the Chinese government would have forbid him from intervening as he does, but not now.  And Chen has prevented over 300 suicide attempts in the past twelve years and is now known as the “angel of Nanjing”---a chain smoking, heavy drinking angel who struggles with his own demons. 

He wrestles with depression, his outreach has strained his marriage, and his own friends don’t want to talk about his work anymore.  But he doesn’t stop.  He can’t stop.  This all started with the suicide death of a neighbor, an elderly man Chen was planning to visit but didn’t. 

So now every weekend he arrives at the bridge, usually by 7:30 AM, armed with emergency pamphlets explaining where people can get help, and business cards with his personal cell phone number.  Sometimes Chen walks, sometimes he rides his motor scooter.  But always he’s watching.  He’s become an expert at picking out the most desperate figures looking down at the brown water of the Yangtze 230 feet below.  Even so, he’s witnessed over 50 people jump to their deaths before he could reach them.

Chen’s style of intervention depends on the person he’s trying to save.  He can be gentle, speaking like a therapist to those who have not yet decided, but he can also be aggressive when necessary---as in the case of a person who’s already on the other side of the railing.  And his efforts are not always appreciated.  He’s been physically attacked and beaten by would-be jumpers.

Chen Si’s care doesn’t end once he’s gotten the suicidal people off the bridge.  He rents an apartment where they can rest for a few days and receive crisis counseling.  He often phones people he’s saved for weeks afterwards to check up on them.  He’s even spoken to creditors, trying to lessen the financial burden many he saves are under.

His ultimate hope is that the government will make more of an effort to curb the growing suicide epidemic in China where more than a third of the world’s suicides now occur.

There is a Chinese saying, “The prosperity of a nation is everyone’s responsibility.”  For Chen that means being a weekend lifeguard on the Yangtze River Bridge.

Chen Si is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Andrew White

Six weeks after being assigned as the priest to Coventry Cathedral in the West Midlands of England, 33 year-old Andrew White began experiencing balance and eye sight problems.  He was hospitalized, and on the same day that his second child was born, Fr. White received the news that he had multiple sclerosis.  So, he did what any human being would do---head for war- torn Iraq to serve as a pastor, a peace-maker, and a leader of inter-religious dialogue.

In the eighteen years since, he’s earned the title, “Vicar of Baghdad.”  Fr. White has been involved in everything from mediating the release of Muslim and Christian hostages to facilitating communication between Shia and Sunni leaders, to founding The Foundation for Relief and Reconciliation in the Middle East (FRRME).

FRRME provides medical care and emergency supplies to persecuted peoples in Northern Iraq and Jordan, including Christian and Yazidi refugees.  White’s organization works with the United Nations and other churches to ensure the food and medicine actually gets to those who are most vulnerable.
Because the Jordanian government does not allow refugees to work, FRRME is also providing shelter for 500 Iraqi families in Marka (a suburb of Amman), and education for 175 children.

Fr. White’s peacemaking efforts also include The Jerusalem International School for Reconciliation (JISR), a summer school program that teaches Israeli and Palestinian youths about new methods of reconciliation.

Along the way, White and his wife have also adopted five Iraqi children.

But like any true ministry, he has suffered.  White’s life has been threatened numerous times, and he has endured hijackings, a kidnapping, torture, and he’s had to travel with bodyguards for years.  In 2014 the Archbishop of Canterbury ordered White to leave Baghdad, due to increased security risks.  Yet he remains near, in Jordan.

Fr. White has been recognized by several international groups for his reconciliation work, including the ICCJ Prize for Intellectual Contribution to Jewish-Christian Relations, the International Sternberg Prize, the Tanenbaum Peace Prize, the William Wilberforce Award, and the Anne Frank Award (presented by the Dutch government).

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God.”

Andrew White is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Kate Munger

When asked how the Threshold Choir came about, Kate Munger first recalled a happy childhood, where her loving mother would often sing lullabies to her and her four siblings each night at bedtime, and to campfire songs with her fellow Girl Scouts as an eight year-old.  But as its name reveals, the Threshold Choir is about more than happy times.  And Kate remembers facing down her own fears by singing for the first time at the bedside of a dear friend who was dying of AIDS. That was in 1990.

In March of 2000, Kate gathered fifteen friends at a home in El Cerrito, California---fifteen women who believed that for too long our society had distanced itself from the reality of suffering and death, and that compassion should have a voice.

And the first Threshold Choir was born.

Within a year Kate had founded chapters, always made up of volunteers, in Marin, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, and Sonoma Counties.  And today there is a network of over 125 a cappella Threshold Choirs---connected typically though the internet and consisting mostly of women’s voices---comforting those at the threshold of time and eternity in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Cambodia.  Their mission is simple, and profound.

“…To sing for and with those at the thresholds of life.”

The word ‘threshold’ is associated with crossing over or passing through, but Kate also chose the word because the threshold is the place through which one passes from outside to inside---to join with others. 

Threshold Choirs sing to those in a coma, and those who are dying.  But they also sing to newborns and children in hospitals, and women who are incarcerated.  Whether it be the beautiful voices, the songs, or the gift of presence, the fruit of this work is peace and love. 

The Threshold Choir’s repertoire consists of some 400 songs, and includes everything from spirituals and hymns to lullabies and soft pop songs that are fifty, sixty and seventy years-old.  They can even work in an occasional Beatles ballad or a less raucous version of “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” if there’s an interest.  Kate reports that family members and friends will often join in.

“We like to think of our work as kindness made audible.”

Making kindness audible---“So shines a good deed in a weary world.”

Kate Munger is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.