What Price the Life of One Child?
Most of us will fight fiercely for our kids. We have an instinctual need to make sure they are kept safe from harm.
In her year before middle school, my daughter was the victim of bullying. She was taunted and called a slut by a clique of ‘mean girls.’
When I visited her teacher, he said something to the effect of, “This is a normal thing for sixth grade girls. Your daughter needs to develop a thick skin.”
It did not set well with this mama bear. I demanded that my child’s teacher intervene and when he didn’t, I took it to the principal.
I would protect my child’s need for emotional safety.
Looking at today’s refugee crisis in Europe, at the boatloads of people who found it necessary to risk everything to escape the horrors of their homeland, I can’t help but think.
What if the emotional nurturing of my child had to take a second place to finding a way to sustain her life? What if her physical being, her life, was in grave danger?
I thought about this when I saw the heartbreaking image of the Syrian father holding the limp body of his four-year-old son, who reached the shores of Turkey but not before he drowned.
What kinds of impossible choices did that man have to make to try to save his family?
And what would I risk to save my child?
On one of my trips to West Africa, as a manager for an international humanitarian organization, I spent a night in Senegal, close to the border with Mauritania.
At the time, Mauritanian cattle herders and Senegalese farmers were clashing over rights to the water in the Senegal River, which divides the two countries.
This conflict would leave thousands dead, many more displaced and a refugee crisis as massive numbers people fled their homes on the Mauritanian side across the river to Senegal.
These were parents who felt as fiercely protective of their children as I do mine.
I slept in my compound that night with an armed guard stationed at the door, for precautionary measures, my boss said.
My lesson: sometimes wars—and refugee crises— happen over something as basic as water. And it is the children who suffer the most.
Parents make impossible choices to protect their children.
ONE CHILD, 7,000 MILES FROM HOME
Some families are driven from their homes by war.
Years ago I worked with such kids as a bilingual teacher in a high-poverty elementary school in Washington state. Pao, a bright 10-year old boy, had emigrated from his home in the mountains of Laos, his family a casualty of choosing the wrong side in the Viet Nam War.
They had harbored—and fought alongside—American soldiers. Some of them had even worked for the CIA. Now, with the Communist regime, it was no longer safe to stay.
Many did not survive the journey to refugee camps in Thailand. Their fields and houses were burned, animals slaughtered, people chased down and killed.
The lucky ones made it through the jungle, traveling barefoot and, to avoid detection, in the dead of the night.
Often children had to be drugged so they wouldn’t cry, and some died of overdoses. The elderly, who couldn’t move quickly, chose to end their lives with massive doses of opium, to help their grown children have a chance to live.
All to arrive in an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand, on a wait list for America.
This was the story of Pao’s people. These were the choices his parents had to make.
Pao picked things up quickly: math, geography, even English. At school he ate silently, guarding his food, looking up only occasionally as if he was confirming where he was. I could see the leftover trauma on his face, the uncertainty.
I learned not to extend my hand too quickly, when the first time I did it, he winced and cowered. I would never know what experiences he had been through.
At home, he fought with his father, I suspected because he thought Pao was becoming too Americanized. I gave him my home phone number because I knew his nights were tough.
He called me several times a week and, in halting English, talked about everything in the world, about life.
These children excelled in math and loved to work out complex problems, though most of my time was spent spoon-feeding them tender phrases:
“May I use the bathroom?” “The color of this pen is blue.”
Their artwork was breathtaking: vivid, color-splashed and full of emotion.
On a mission to educate the other students in the school, I made a “Tell Me About Laos” bulletin board in the hallway, where I hung their translated stories and paintings of family life—always against a backdrop of gorgeous “BAH-nah-nah trees.”
I would never pronounce “banana” the same way again.
I often wonder where Pao is today, what he is doing with his life.
And I marvel at the bravery of his parents, carting their babies off, not knowing whether they would even survive the trek and if they did, where they would all land.
WOULD I RISK IT ALL TO SAVE MY CHILD?
I can’t stop thinking about that four-year-old Syrian boy. One child, whose suffering was broadcast to the world via social media.
What price do we put on the the life of one child? How do we even put a value on that?
Maybe we should ask his grieving father.
And I wonder.
How bad would things have to get before I made the choice to risk everything—my family, the children I cherish— to set off for the unknown, with the possibility that I’ll be turned away when I arrive—or my child will die?
What kind of courage would it take to uproot my child, separate him from his home, his friends, the only life he has ever known, to risk death – and survive – only to be dropped into a classroom 7,000 miles away from his beloved Laos, into a universe where he understands just two words: “no” and “Coca-Cola”?
I can only wonder.
What would I do?s