Heroes You Should Know: Aki Ra

 

 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.

Mothering Day

motherchild

“The mother’s heart is the child’s school-room.”  -Henry Ward Beecher

Mother’s Day is a holy day indeed, a blessed day, a precious day.  It is a day we should all celebrate if for no other reason…and there is not a more fundamental reason…than that our mothers chose life.  We can and should be forever grateful for this.  There is no greater gift.

 

But on Mother’s Day I believe we should also celebrate ALL women who mother, for motherhood is certainly more than a physical act.  We miss the true essence of motherhood if we reduce this sacred role to something wholly explained by obstetrics.

 

Those who mother bear hope.

Those who mother invest in the future.

Those who mother protect innocence.

Those who mother guide the vulnerable.

Those who mother teach about all that really matters.

Those who mother sacrifice for the Good.

Those who mother love and let go…and still love.

 

Happy Mother’s Day, Happy Mothering Day, to all women who carry life, birth life, and nurture life in every way.  “Thank you” is a good starting point, but not nearly enough!

Heroes You Should Know: Zoya Krakhmalnikova

zoya

 

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.

Moms for Peace: Betty Williams and Maired Corrigan

peacemoms

 

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.

Heroes You Should Know: Tegla Loroupe

Tegla

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.

Mother Elisabeth (Elise Rivet)

 

 elisabeth

At 22 years-old, Elise Rivet embraced a calling to the religious life, and joined the Notre-Dame de la Compassion sisters in Lyon, France.  This order worked especially with underprivileged girls who were petty criminals and vagrants, offering them housing and job training so they could leave crime and the streets for a better life.

 

Trained as a nurse, Rivet took vows and became Sister Elisabeth in 1913.  Because of her work ethic and leadership she was named Mother Superior of her community prior to the Nazi invasion and occupation of France.

 

As early as 1940, Mother Elisabeth was involved in the French Resistance.  She was associated with two different movements—L’Armee Secrete and Ajax—as an intelligence agent, and used her convent to hide documents, weapons and ammunition, and equipment for the Resistance.

 

With the blessing of the Cardinal of Lyon, Pierre-Marie Gerlier, Mother Elisabeth also hid Jewish mothers (whom she dressed as nuns) and their children at the convent and helped them find hiding places as they made their way to safety outside occupied France.  Before leaving the convent, she also provided the refugees with false identity papers.

 

Two of the Jewish women who found shelter in the convent, and several orphaned babies and children, ended up staying until the end of the war.

 

However, on March 25, 1944 Mother Elisabeth and her assistant were arrested by the Gestapo and jailed.  Convicted as a “great criminal of war” for her efforts to hide Jews and assist the French Resistance she was eventually sent to the Ravensbruck Concentration Camp.  For a year, Mother Elisabeth counseled and offered emotional and spiritual support to the other prisoners and was remembered by many there as the “monument of serenity, and hope, and love for other women.”

 

On Good Friday March 30, 1945, only weeks before the Nazis surrendered, Mother Elisabeth volunteered to die in the gas chamber, taking the place of a fellow prisoner who had children.  Mother was 55 years-old.

 

On July 14, 1996, Yad Vashem recognized Mother Elizabeth Rivet as Righteous Among the Nations.

 

Elise Rivet, Mother Elisabeth, is a hero you should know.  And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.

Heroes You Should Know: Frederick Law Olmsted

FLO

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.

Heroes You Should Know: The Hardagas and the Kabiljos

hardaga

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.

Heroes You Should Know: Biddy Mason

 

 biddy

 

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.

Heroes You Should Know: Jerrie Cobb

 

 jerrie

 

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.