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.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Christian de Cherge

Father Christian de Cherge was the Prior of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas, and his tragic martyrdom was presented in the movie Of Gods and Men.

But he is a hero for how he lived, not how he died.

Born into a French military family, Christian first met Islam when he was five and his family was stationed in Algeria.  He was moved by the prayer life of the Muslims around him, and his mother taught him to respect their search for God.

As a twenty-three year old seminarian, de Cherge returned to Algeria in 1959 to complete his compulsory military service.  Technically a French soldier fighting against the Algerians, Christian formed an unlikely friendship with a Muslim police officer named Mohamed a father of ten.  They would take long walks together and discuss religion, politics, and life.  But on one of these walks the two men were ambushed by Algerian rebels.  De Cherge, dressed in his military fatigues, would have been killed on the spot but for Mohamed interceding and convincing the men to let the young Frenchman go free.

“I will pray for you,” was all de Cherge could say to his friend.  The next morning Mohamed was murdered for what he’d done.  From then on, Christian committed himself to peacemaking in Algeria.  He was a brilliant student, and the hierarchy had him pegged as a rising star in the Church.  But Christian wanted the lonely desert of Algeria, not Paris.  After ordination, he studied Arabic, Islam, and the Quran, and eventually had his request to return to Africa granted in 1971.

There, in Tibhirine, Algeria, in the shadows of the Atlas Moutains, he would become the Prior of the Trappist monastery.  For decades he and his fellow monks lived with their Muslim neighbors in peace.  His form of evangelism was to offer the locals employment, medical care, and literacy tutoring.  De Cherge also organized an annual interfaith conference to foster Muslim-Christian dialogue, and even invited Muslims to stay at the monastery as his special guests.

But as the relationship between the Christian monks and the Muslim community grew, the radical Islamist group GIA became more agitated.  Several times Fr. Christian and his monks were advised to leave, but after prayer and reflection they decided to stay as witnesses to the reality of the peaceful Christian-Muslim co-existence that had been established.

Just after midnight on March 27, 1996 twenty heavily armed GIA soldiers broke into the monastery and took seven of the monks, including Fr. Christian, hostage.  One month later, after the French had refused to negotiate, the extremists released a letter stating that they had beheaded the monks.

After news of her son’s death reached Christian’s mother, she opened a letter he’d given her two years earlier, “to be opened in the event of my death”.  In it, he predicted that he would die at the hands of extremists, and then closed his letter by addressing his ‘friend of the last moment”—his murderer:

“…Yes, I want this thank you and this good-bye to be a ‘God Bless’ for you, too, because in God’s face I see yours. May we meet again as happy thieves in Paradise, if it pleases God, the Father of us both.”

The cause for Fr. Christian de Cherge’s beatification has been opened.  He is a saint for our troubled times;  a true peacemaker who loved beyond limits.

Christian de Cherge is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Faraaz Hossain

20 year-old  Faraaz Hossain wasn’t thinking about becoming a hero on the evening of July 1, 2016, as he met two former high school classmates from Dhaka, Bangladesh for a brief reunion at their old hangout, Holey Artisan Bakery in the business district of Dhaka.  The three friends were home for summer break from studying in America---Hossain as a graduate student at Emory University, Abinta Kabir (age 18) as an undergraduate at Emory, and Tarishi Jain (age 19), a student at Berkeley---and wanted to catch up over some bagels and coffee. 

But then heavily armed seven ISIS terrorists stormed the bakery shouting 'Allahu Akbar!' and took Hossain and more than thirty customers hostage.

The standoff lasted for almost twelve hours, during which time the terrorists questioned the hostages about their religions and nationalities, and then reportedly told them that if they could not recite passages from the Quran they would die. 

Muslims were separated from non-Muslims, and the terrorists had the staff cook meals for the Muslim hostages so they could eat before the Ramadan fast started at sunrise.  A group of women dressed in traditional Islamic hijabs were eventually allowed to leave, and then the terrorists told Faraaz that because he was Bengali and Muslim he too could leave.

Eyewitnesses report that Faraaz asked about his friends.   Because Abinta wasn’t Muslim and Jain admitted to being an American citizen he was told that they would have to die.  “Then, I’ll stay with them” was Hossain’s response.  Soon after 20 of the hostages, including Faraaz, Abinta, and Jain, were brutally hacked to death.

Faraaz’s brother Zaraif reported that the autopsy showed wounds consistent with someone who tried to fight back.  “Our mom has raised us to always protect and respect women.  And he (Faraaz) did so till the end.”

One can only speculate as to why Faraaz chose to stay when he could have left.  Did he think he could somehow overpower seven men, armed with guns and knives?  Did he believe the terrorists would eventually let them all go free?  Or did he simply feel that he couldn’t abandon his friends, even knowing that it meant his own death?

What we do know is that Faraaz Hossain was a brilliant and personable graduate student who, at 20 years-old, had a world of wonderful personal and professional options in front of him. And he could have left.  Some…perhaps many…would say he should have left.  He was destined for success.

Destined for success?  Faraaz Hossain was more than successful, he was significant.

Faraaz Hossain is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: William Kamkwamba

If ever there was an example of creativity finding a way, it would be William Kamkwamba. 

Born the second of seven children in a farming family in Malawi, he was forced to leave school at 14 when a devastating famine sucked the life out of his country’s soil and his parents could no longer afford the $80 annual school fee.  But William wasn’t about to stop learning, turning to the local library for educational material without missing a beat. 

Early on he’d shown talent with electronics, having started a radio repair business to make extra money for his family.  Even so, when he built his first electricity-producing windmill from spare parts and scrap at age 14 to power his family’s home---working only from plans he found in a library book---heads began to turn.

An international blogger heard about the young inventor, wrote about him, and the rest is history.  TED Global Conference director Emeka Okafor tracked down William and invited him to speak at the next conference about his windmill and his dream to build larger windmills to help his village.

Not surprisingly, a generous outpouring of financial support followed his presentation.

And as a result, William was able to improve his original windmill by incorporating solar power---and then adding this system to the new windmills he built.  He also developed a solar powered pump to help produce clean water, and a bio-gas digester that uses cow dung to generate gas for cooking.  His innovations have lowered dependence on firewood and overall deforestation.

William was also able to re-start his formal education as well, first as a student at the African Leadership Academy, and then at Dartmouth College where he graduated in 2014.

Somehow, he also found time to put his story into book form, with the internationally acclaimed The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind.

Named by Time magazine as one of the "30 People Under 30 Changing The World,” William remains committed to his country’s growth, and envisions building an innovation center in Malawi where other inventors can share their discoveries and their dreams.

William Kamkwamba is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Fe del Mundo

Fe del Mundo suffered significant losses early in life, and they sculpted her future.  Three of her eight siblings died in infancy.  And when her older sister---who’d dreamed of one day being a doctor to the poor---died at age 11 of appendicitis, young Fe decided she would be a pediatrician.

A brilliant student, she earned her medical degree from the University of the Philippines in 1933.  And because of her giftedness the President of the Philippines offered her a scholarship to any medical school in the United States, to further her training.  Fe chose Harvard Medical School, and was accepted there in 1936.  When she arrived, she was surprised to be escorted to her room in the male dormitory. 

It was then that she learned Harvard did not accept women to its medical school.  And Harvard learned that Fe was a woman.

However, because of her stellar record the head of the Pediatrics department decided to make an exception for del Mundo.   It would take nine additional years for the school to change its admission policies and begin accepting women.

After her studies at Harvard and at Boston College, where she earned a Masters in Bacteriology, Fe decided to return to the Philippines in 1941, just months before the Japanese invasion.  When the war began, she took a job with the Red Cross and worked with the children interned at the University of Santo Tomas.  In 1943 when the Japanese closed the camp, del Mundo headed up the Children’s Hospital in Manila and worked there until 1948

Growing tired of the governmental bureaucracy that seemed to limit the effectiveness of medical care, Fe sold her home and most of her belongings, obtained a sizeable loan, and founded her own 100 bed pediatric hospital that opened its doors in 1957.  One year later she ceded personal ownership of the hospital to a Board of Trustees.  Not having a home of her own now, del Mundo lived on the second floor of her hospital.

Doing pioneering work in the area of infectious diseases, and remaining active in the field of public health (she once created an incubator out of bamboo for rural clinics without electricity to use), del Mundo practiced medicine for eight decades---passing away just short of her 100th birthday.

Shaped by early losses, this remarkable doctor, innovator, and humanitarian turned tragedy into triumph, and in the process made the world a healthier place---in mind, body, and spirit.

Fe del Mundo is hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Aki Ra

Born in Siem Reap, Cambodia and orphaned as an infant when the Khmer Rouge killed both his parents, Eoun Yeak isn’t sure of his birthday…or even his birth year.  He believes it was either 1970 or 1973. 

And when he was big enough to carry a rifle he was conscripted into the Khmer Rouge army as a child soldier.  But when the Vietnamese Army invaded Cambodia, Eoun Yeak was taken captive and eventually joined the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Armed Forces.  The young boy was so efficient planting landmines on the border of Thailand and Cambodia (as many as 5,000 a month) he was given the name ‘Aki Ra’, after the heavy-duty Japanese appliance company Akira, and the nickname stuck.

Having laid roughly 160,000 mines himself, and becoming an expert in the process, Aki Ra was hired by the United Nations in 1991 to disarm and remove landmines in Cambodia where Cambodian Mine Action and Victim Assistance Authority estimate up to 6 million had been laid in the three decades of war. 

Eventually he established his own business of de-mining areas, and selling the mines for scrap.  Word spread about this former child soldier who was hired by villages to disarm landmines with a stick.  Aki Ra began charging a dollar for visitors to see the grenades, bombs, mines, army uniforms, and rifles he’d collected and hear him teach about safety.  He put his earnings toward the founding of the Cambodian Landmine Museum.

When the Cambodian government heard of the museum, they quickly moved to shut it down, and to stop Aki Ra’s “uncertified” de-mining work.  He was briefly imprisoned twice, and eventually decided to receive special training and certification through London’s International School of Security and Explosives Education so that he could continue his work.

In 2008, the Cambodian Landmine Museum was reopened.  It serves to tell Aki Ra’s story and educate visitors of the ongoing horrors of landmines.  But Aki Ra has also turned the museum into a home for 29 children he’s met in his de-mining work --- victims of landmines, as well as polio, AIDS, and birth defects.  Some of these children are orphans, some were given up by parents who could not afford to keep them, and the proceeds from the museum go to feed, clothe, and educate them.

Today Aki Ra continues to lead his non-profit Cambodian Self Help Demining team, comprised of native Cambodians, and together they have cleared over 3.2 million yards of landmines in poor villages considered “low priority” by the government.  Lives have been saved and thousands of families have been able to return to farming as a result.

Orphaned and forced to plant landmines as a child, Aki Ra now chooses to risk his life to make his country safe again.

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

Friday, April 29, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Zoya Krakhmalnikova

How much are you willing to sacrifice for love?  This isn’t a question too many of us are forced to face in the safety and comfort of the United States.  But for Zoya Krakhmalnikova, a Soviet Dissident in the Soviet Union, it was 24/7.

From an early age she understood the risks involved in fighting for freedom, and speaking truth in the face of a tyrannical regime.  As a nine year-old she’d watched as her father was arrested during one of Joseph Stalin’s many purges in the Ukraine.  And after she completed her undergraduate and post-graduate studies at the Gorky Literary Institute, and become a member of the Soviet Academy of Sciences' Institute of Sociology, she could have played it safe.  And who would have blamed her for enjoying her hard-earned professional success as a writer, and wanting to preserve her scholarly standing along with her husband who was also an author and member of the Academy.

But in 1971, Zoya decided to be baptized in the Russian Orthodox Church.  This public statement of faith immediately led to her being fired from her job and dismissed from the USSR Union of Soviet Writers.  Essentially she would no longer have any of her writing published in her country.

But she kept writing…and writing about subjects that would eventually land her in hot water again.  She began with a series of articles concerning Christianity in the Soviet Union which she sent to a contact outside the Soviet Union to publish.  Then she resurrected a pre-revolution journal Nadezhda (Hope), focusing on the history of the Russian Orthodox Church and its role.  The journal which had been suppressed 60 years before by the Soviet hierarchy, was published in West Germany.  But before long it was being smuggled back into the Soviet Union. 

And when Zoya began writing about the “new martyrs’’ in the Soviet Union, she was arrested.  Encouraging Christianity and democracy was a crime for which she could have been executed.  But in a move designed to show itself as tolerant, the court sentenced her to “only” one year in the infamous KGB Lefortovo prison.  Secretly, though, they tacked on an additional exile of five years to a remote settlement near the Mongolian border.  Zoya was allowed one visit a month with her husband and daughter, but was prohibited from going to Church or having contact with a priest.

However, when Mikhail Gorbachev came to power she was given the chance to “repent” of her sins against the State.  She refused but was still pardoned in 1987.  

Undaunted and fearless she would spend the last 21 years of her life as a pro-democracy activist, speaking out against totalitarianism and even publicly challenging her own Russian Orthodox Church to apologize for the ways it too collaborated with the Soviet authorities.

When one considers that an estimated 12-20 million Russian Christians alone who were put to death by the Soviets for their faith, Zoya Krakhmalnikova seems to have gotten off easy.  But ask yourself if you’d be willing to lose your career, good standing, freedom, material wealth, home, friends, spouse, and child for the cause of faith and freedom…or anything.  If you wouldn’t chose instead to play it safe, get by, compromise conscience for comfort?  That’s certainly the typical human response, and any reasonable person would understand if Zoya had chosen that path of least resistance.  

But she didn’t.   That’s the point.

Zoya Krakhmalnikova is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Peace Moms: Betty Williams and Maired Corrigan

On a sweltering afternoon in August 1976 Danny Lennon and John Chillingworth raced through the streets of Belfast.  They’d been identified by British police as Provisional Irish Republican Army members and were suspected of transporting guns.  At Finaghy Road North the police opened fire, killing Lennon the driver and sending the car careening onto the sidewalk.  It hit a mother, Anne Maguire, and her three children who were out shopping.  The eight year-old girl and her six week old brother were killed instantly, their 2 year-old brother died the next day.  Anne survived the tragic accident but would commit suicide four years later, unable to overcome her grief.

Maguire’s neighbor Betty Williams, who happened to be driving home at the same time and witnessed the horror, decided enough was enough.  She began gathering signatures of both Catholics and Protestants for a peace petition, and organized 200 women to march through Belfast to raise awareness for this latest effort at peace.  The march passed close to the home of Maired Corrigan, the sister of Anne Maguire, and Corrigan joined in.
And ‘Women for Peace’, a movement committed to ending the Troubles in Northern Ireland was born. 

Soon after the initial march a second march took place, and this time 10,000 Catholic and Protestant women made their way through Belfast again, this time to the graves of the three Maguire children.  The protesters were met with violence by IRA members on the route, who accused them of colluding with the British government.  The response of Williams and Corrigan…a third march the following week where more than 35,000 people participated. 

In contrast to the past, Williams and Corrigan put forth a platform that called for an end to violence in Northern Ireland not through violence, but re-education.  The organization, which soon changed its name to the more inclusive ‘Community for Peace People’ began publishing a newspaper, Peace by Peace, and providing bus service for families trying to visit loved ones in Belfast’s  jails.  And Williams and Corrigan spoke out, and traveled, and spoke out some more.
Their impact was so significant that in 1977 the two moms from Belfast were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

In 2006 Williams and Corrigan joined with fellow Nobel Prize winners Shirin Ebadi, Wangari Maathai, Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchu Tum (representing North and South America, the Middle East, Europe and Africa) to form the Nobel Women’s Initiative.  The goal of this initiative is to help support women's rights around the world.

Betty Williams and Maired Corrigan are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Tegla Loroupe

Tegla Loroupe grew up in a small Kenyan village roughly ten miles from her school. There was no school bus, and her family had no mode of transportation. So beginning at age seven, she would run there and back, without shoes. And in the process she figured out she was pretty good at distance running.
Because of her size (fully grown, now, she stands five feet and weighs 86 pounds), the Athletics Kenya (the Kenyan governing body for track and field) did not take her seriously until she won a national cross country event in 1988 at the age of 15. The next year she received her first pair of running shoes and began competing in international competitions.
Her father, who had four wives and 24 children, did not believe running was an appropriate pursuit for women, and wanted Tegla to be more domestic. But Tegla persevered.
In 1994 and 1998 she won the gold medal at the Goodwill Games in the 10,000 meters, and a bronze medal at the IAAF World Championships in 1995 and 1999 at the same distance.
The United States met her up close when she won the New York City marathon in 1994 and 1995. In all, Loroupe has won 8 marathons around the world, and three world half-marathons. She has also held the world record for the women’s marathon, the world record for one hour running (where she covered 18, 340 meters), and at distances of 20, 25, and 30 kilometers.
But as passionate as she is about professional distance running, Loroupe has always been about more than just personal fame and money.
In 2003 she started the Tegla Loroupe Peace Foundation, with the motto “peace through sports.” Her foundation works to promote peace and economic development between under-served individuals and communities in Northern Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Yemen, Eritrea, Djibouti, and Sudan. Through her reputation and leadership skills, Tegla’s foundation has built an orphanage in Kenya, and also established a series of “peace races.”
These 10K events, which started in 2006, have high ranking government officials running alongside thousands of warriors from rival tribes---and bonding through the experience.
In 2006, Secretary General Kofi Annan of the United Nations named Tegla a United Nations Ambassador of Sport, and in 2008 Oxfam named her Ambassador of Sport and Peace to Darfur.
Today, this world-class athlete and world-class human lives in Germany and Kenya, while continuing her humanitarian efforts around the world.
Tegla Loroupe is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Frederick Law Olmsted

As a young boy, Frederick Law Olmsted was curious about the Biblical figure John the Baptist, the prophet who reportedly ate locusts and wild honey.  So when he found a honey-locust tree Olmsted tried to eat one of its pods.  But instead of changing his interest when he found it inedible, young Frederick chose to plant a pod from the same tree and patiently nurture it into a sapling.  Such was the spirit of the man who would go on to shape the face of public spaces and recreation in America.

Although known primarily as a landscape architect, Olmsted was first a respected journalist who presented significant research he’d done on slavery in America.  He abhorred slavery on moral grounds but chose to attack it in a more objective way, arguing that slavery was bad for the Southern economy (the roughly 8,000 plantation owners hoarded the wealth), which in turn kept the vast majority of citizens in Southern states uneducated and illiterate (he reported that the South’s illiteracy rate was 30 times greater than in his home state of Connecticut).

His breakthrough moment as a landscape architect came when he won the international competition to design Central Park in Manhattan in 1858.  His winning design was the first he’d ever drawn and executed.

Beauty mattered to Olmsted.  He understood that it had the power to make society better, more humane, more integrated.  And combining beauty with public spaces brought people of different religions, cultures, and economic classes together in harmony.  Olmsted wanted equal access for all citizens to these “public” parks, which until then was a foreign concept.

An incredibly prolific designer, Olmsted’s commissions include such noteworthy spaces as the Capitol Grounds in Washington D.C., Niagara Falls State Park, the Universities of Stanford, Yale, Chicago, U.C. Berkeley, and Wellesley, the Emerald Necklace in Boston, the Mariposa Mining Estate in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and the entire parks and parkway system in Louisville, Kentucky.

During the Civil War Olmsted served as the Executive Secretary of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, a precursor the Red Cross, and personally recruited three regiments of African American soldiers in New York for the Union Army.

After the war he became a leader of the conservationist movement in the United States, and influenced the decision to designate Yosemite Valley as a public reserve as well as saving Niagara Falls from being industrialized for the use of electrical power plants. 

Colleague Daniel Burnham said of Olmsted, "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views."

And this world is a more beautiful place in every way because of it.

Frederick Law Olmsted is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr Ross Porter.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: The Hardagas and the Kabiljos

You know how the truth can sometimes be stranger than fiction?

When the Nazis invaded Yugoslavia in 1941 and the Lufftwaffe bombed their home, the Jewish Kabiljo family was forced to flee into the local mountains to hide.  But this proved untenable and they made the desperate decision to try and get to the factory building where their business was housed.  Once there, they encountered Mustafa Hardaga, the Muslim man who owned the building.  Not only did he choose to not turn the family in to the Nazis, he made the extraordinary decision to invite them to his home, to live with him, his wife, Zejneba, and his brother and sister-in-law.

Islamic rules about modesty dictated that women cover their faces in the presence of men who were not family, but the Hardagas decided to declare the Kabiljos part of their own family so their women did not have to veil their faces.

Of course anyone caught harboring Jews would have been executed, and to make matters even more tense, the Hardaga home happened to be located ten yards from the Gestapo headquarters.  The Hardagas were unfazed but eventually the Kabiljos decided they could no longer put their friends in danger. 

Mrs. Kabiljo and their children escaped to a Bosnian city that lay outside the Nazi-zone.  Josef stayed behind to close down their business but was captured.  Because of the heavy snows, he could not be transported to the infamous Jasenovac camp near Zagreb where he almost surely would have been killed.  So he stayed in Sarajevo, and worked on a chain gang clearing snow from the roads.  When the Hardagas found out where Josef was located they began bringing him and the other prisoners food to keep them from starving  Eventually Josef was able to escape, return to live with the Hardagas for a short time, and then rejoin his family. 

After the war the Kabiljo family relocated to Jerusalem.  And there, in 1984, they finally convinced Yad Vashem to grant the Hardaga family the title ‘Righteous Among the Nations’--- making them the first Muslims to receive this honor.  But the story doesn’t end there.

In 1994, when the Serbs attacked Sarajevo, Zejneba Hardaga and her family were forced into a basement for shelter and survive on soup made from grass they’d picked in a local park.  The Kabiljo family, who had stayed in touch with the Hardagas, contacted Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and explained the situation and the background story.  Israel, in turn, contacted the Bosnian government and negotiated for the Hardaga family to be transported anywhere they chose.  The Hardagas chose Israel.  And when the Hardagas landed in the Holy Land, they were met at the airport by one of the Kabiljo daughters!

Muslims save Jews, and Jews save Muslims.  And hope springs eternal.

The Hardagas and the Kabilijos are heroes you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Heroes You Should Know: Biddy Mason

Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in Mississippi in 1818 without a last name.  At 18, she was given as a wedding present to Robert Smith.  By 1848 Smith and his household had become Mormon, and decided to journey to Utah with a 300 wagon caravan.  Biddy and her three daughters---a 10 year-old, a 4 year-old, and an infant (all three probably fathered by Smith himself)---walked the 1,700 miles.  Biddy helped to break camp, cook, herd cattle, and serve as a midwife for the caravan.

Although the Mormon Church did not have black members at the time, they did encourage Smith to free his slaves (including Biddy and her daughters), but Smith refused.  When Brigham Young sent Smith and his household to San Bernardino, California to establish a Mormon settlement, though, Biddy saw her chance for freedom.  California was a free state, so she escaped with several other slaves.  However Smith captured her and her party and quickly decided to move to Texas, a slave state, to protect what he considered to be his property.  But before the family could leave California, the Los Angeles county sheriff---tipped off to Smith’s illegal activity---stopped them on the El Cajon pass and prevented their exit.  Biddy then filed a petition in district court for her freedom, the freedom of her daughters, and 10 other slaves held by Smith.

After three days of deliberation, Judge Benjamin Hayes handed down a ruling in favor of Biddy and her extended family.  Free, Biddy took the last name of Mason, the middle name of the mayor of San Bernardino, and moved with her daughters to Los Angeles.

She began working as a nurse and midwife for physician John Griffin, earning $2.50 per day. Within ten years Biddy was able to save enough money to buy a parcel of land on Spring Street in downtown Los Angeles for $250, becoming the first black woman to own land in Los Angeles.  Her parcel was one block from the heart of the financial district.  She then sold part of the land, and on the remaining property built several homes and a commercial building. 

As Biddy Mason’s wealth began to grow so did her generosity.  She supported many charities that provided food and shelter for the poor of Los Angeles, and often visited inmates in county jail. Additionally she built a school, and helped African-Americans start businesses. In 1872, Biddy financed the establishment of the Los Angeles branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and became a founding member.

By the time of her death in 1891, Biddy had become one of the wealthiest women in Los Angeles.  But despite her prominence Biddy Mason was buried in an unmarked grave in Boyle Heights, and for reasons that defy logic it took 100 years for the city she’d blessed so significantly to officially celebrate her life. 

Finally on November 16, 1991 Tom Bradley, the first African American mayor of Los Angeles, and the City Council proclaimed “Biddy Mason Day” in Los Angeles and a tombstone was placed on her final resting place.  The next day a mixed-use building named the Broadway Spring Center was opened on the site of her original home.  The site contains an 8-by-81 foot memorial wall honoring this remarkable woman.

Biddy Mason is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Hereos You Should Know: Jerrie Cobb

Geraldyn “Jerrie” Cobb was born the right sex at the wrong time to be an astronaut, but that didn’t stop her from flying.  The daughter of a Lieutenant Colonel and pilot, Jerrie first flew with her dad for the first time at age 12, was flying for a circus at 16, and by 18 had her commercial pilot’s license.

She wanted to fly for a living, but because of the flood of pilots returning from World War II, and discriminatory attitudes toward female aviators, Jerrie ended up with the less exciting jobs of crop dusting and pipeline patrol.  

So she worked harder.  And by 19 she was teaching men to fly, having earned her Multi-Engine, Instrument, Flight Instructor, and Ground Instructor ratings, and Airline Transport license.  At 21 her flying skills were respected enough that she was delivering fighter planes and bombers to foreign air forces all over the world.

In her free time Jerrie set new world records for speed, distance, and absolute altitude. 

1959 was her breakout year, as Cobb was named Pilot of the Year by the National Pilots Association, became one of the few female executives in aviation (taking a position with Aero Design and Engineering Company), and took part in a privately funded research program that came to be known as ‘Mercury 13.’ 

Could women be astronauts?  The records of 700 veteran women aviators were reviewed by Dr. Richard Lovelace who had helped develop the physiological tests for NASA’s astronauts.  In the end 13 women pilots passed the Phase 1 testing, three of those were able to take and pass Phase II, but only Jerrie Cobb was able to pass all three phases of testing the male astronauts had been given---including tests typical to a physical exam, exhaustion and respiration tests, response to electric shock and induced vertigo, and aeromedical examinations using military equipment and jet aircraft.

In other words, Jerrie could do what any male astronaut could do.

She wrote to President Kennedy and then flew to Washington to meet with Vice President Johnson, to advocate for women being allowed to join NASA.  In 1962 women were still barred from entrance to Air Force training schools, preventing them from becoming test pilots of military jets---a requirement for NASA astronauts.   A special congressional sub-committee was convened in July of 1962, two years before the Civil Rights Act, and the issue of discrimination was debated.  However, in the end no action was taken by Congress. 

Less than a year later, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space. NASA would take sixteen years to catch up, finally opening its doors to women in 1978 with six astronaut candidates, including Sally Ride.

Jerrie Cobb would go on to work for over thirty years flying humanitarian missions---delivering supplies to indigenous tribes, and surveying remote areas to facilitate aid.  Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, France, and Peru have all honored Jerrie for her service, and in 1981 she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for her charitable efforts.

At 95 years-old, this trailblazer doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.  “I have this feeling that life is a spiritual adventure, and I want to make mine in the sky."

Jerrie Cobb is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Pere Jaques de Jesus (Lucien Bunel)

A Roman Catholic priest in the Carmelite Order Pere Jacques de Jesus (born Lucien Bunel) founded and served as the Headmaster of the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus, a boarding school in Avon, France for boys, in 1934.  When World War II broke out, he was conscripted into the French Army, but after France’s surrender he returned to his school---and joined the French Resistance.

Because of his authority as Headmaster, he was able to hide young men from being conscripted into the Nazi labor force.  And in 1943 he began hiding Jews as well.  Three Jewish boys were accepted as students under assumed names, and a fourth was added as a worker.  Jacques also arranged for a local Jewish botanist, Lucien Weil, to be added to the school’s faculty.

However, a year later the Gestapo learned of the priest’s efforts from an informant and arrested him along with the four boys.  As Pere Jacques was led away by the soldiers, he turned to his students and smiled, ''Au revoir, et a bientot''  (“Goodbye, and see you soon”).  The students, in a remarkable act of bravery, applauded their Headmaster even as the Nazis shouted for them to stop.

A month later the Gestapo took the botanist and his family into custody as well.  The boys and the Weil family were sent to Auschwitz where they died. 

Jacques was sent to several different concentration camps, before finally ending up at Mauthausen-Gusen, a notoriously sever labor camp where he ministered to all the prisoners.  When the Nazis attempted to round up the priests in the camp to send them to Dachau, reportedly less demanding then Mauthausen-Gusen, Jacques hid his priestly identity.  Thus he was able to continue his pastoral work and help lead the resistance efforts in the camp.  He was the only priest for the 20,000 prisoners.

Mauthausen-Gusen was one of the last concentration camps to be liberated by the American forces in May of 1945.  By then Pere Jacques, his body compromised by tuberculosis, weighed only 75 pounds.  He was immediately hospitalized but died less than a month later.

In 1985 Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, honored Père Jacques de Jesus as “Righteous Among the Nations” for his efforts to save Jews as Headmaster of his school.

The film director Louis Malle, who as an eleven year-old student at the Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’Enfant-Jésus actually witnessed Pere Jacques’ arrest, memorialized his story in the 1987 movie Au Revoir Les Enfants.

The cause for the canonization of Pere Jacques de Jesus, who lived up to his name, was opened by the Catholic Church in 1990.

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

Monday, February 29, 2016

Bob Fletcher: My brother’s keeper

In a day and age where anger too often separates and divides, it’s important to remember someone who used anger for good.

Bob Fletcher was a California agriculture inspector, working in Florin, California (in Sacramento County) in 1942 when President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing 120,000 Japanese-Americans living on the West Coast into relocation camps.  These families, many of whom had farmed the area since the 1890’s had no choice but to abandon their farms.  One of these farmers, Al Tsukamoto, approached Fletcher, who had earned the trust of the farming community because of his integrity and kindness.  Would this agriculture inspector, an employee of the State, become the steward of two large farms owned by soon-to-be relocated families?  Tsukamoto told Fletcher he could keep all the profits and live in the main house in exchange for paying the mortgages and taxes, and managing the work.

Accepting this responsibility, meant that Fletcher not only had to quit his secure job in the middle of a world war, he’d need to face the long-standing bigotry in the region toward Japanese-Americans---deeply entrenched enough that Japanese-American children for decades had been required to attend segregated schools.

Fletcher disagreed with the President’s decision, and was angered to see injustice and fear institutionalized.  So he not only agreed to save the two farms, and risk personal loss by leaving his job and becoming a target of the bigotry in his community, he only took half the profits.  The other half he deposited in accounts he set up for the families so they’d have working capital when they returned.  Further, he and his wife lived in the bunk house, instead of the main house, out of respect for the rightful owners.

For three years, Fletcher worked 90 acres and averaged 18 hour work-days.  And when the families were finally allowed to return to their farms, and store owners would refuse to fill their orders, Fletcher would make the purchases for them.

Mr. Fletcher would eventually buy his own parcel of land in Florin, raised cattle, worked as a volunteer fire fighter, helped start the Florin Water District, eventually became the Fire Chief, and lived to the ripe old age of 101.  Like so many heroes, Fletcher never considered himself to be one.  “I don’t know about courage…it took a devil of a lot of work.”

Yes, I imagine propping up humanity does take a lot of work.

Bob Fletcher is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.