June 23, 2018
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‘A real school with real walls’ and a lesson in perspective

By Julia Hathaway, Special to the BDN

Good day, readers. I hope 2014 has started out well for you. I’m guessing a lot of you peruse the BDN with a nice hot cup of coffee in hand like I do. Some of you started the day off with a shower. And the vast majority of you made a trip to the toilet shortly upon waking up.

In other words, most of us by now have done something millions of people around the world can’t — accessed clean water and sanitation. And we have done so without giving it a conscious thought. Let’s consider these words from Caryl M. Stern’s book, “ I Believe In Zero.” The title alludes to the idea that global preventable deaths of children under age 5 can be reduced from the current 18,000 per day.

“I had never considered that the water pouring forth from my sink tap was a luxury beyond the grasp of millions of people. Nor had I ever stopped to think what a difference something as simple as hand washing can make in lowering the number of children who take ill, or for that matter, who die. When I was a child, my mother constantly told me, ‘Wash your hands before you eat anything, so I had assumed this to be common practice everywhere. How incredible to think that for vast stretches of humanity, it wasn’t.”

How incredible, indeed!

If you read “I Believe In Zero,” which I highly recommend, you will learn a lot that will seem incredible. Stern, the daughter of a woman who was sent to America as a child of 6 with her little brother by parents desperate to spare them the horrors of Nazi-occupied Austria, has spent her life working to prevent indifference and tragedy. In 2007, at the age of 50, she became president and CEO of the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. In the book, she describes her visits to nations like Mozambique, Sudan and Bangladesh, and she shares the voices of people who experience deprivation most of us can’t begin to imagine.

The story that hit closest to home for me is the one about Rosa, whom she meets after Rosa has given birth to a girl. Working in a rice paddy when she went into labor, she walked four hours in 106-degree heat to a clinic with no pain medications or help beyond basics. Complications probably would have ended in death.

During my first full-term pregnancy, my husband drove me to a fully equipped modern hospital. Cephalopelvic incompatibility (small mom, big baby) and a rapid drop in blood pressure resulted in an emergency Caesarean section. In so many countries, my wonderful daughter and I would be dead.

As a mother, I was deeply troubled by the story of a young teen in a refugee camp in Sudan. She returned from fetching water to see her father and brothers killed by rebels. She was gang raped in front of her mother and sisters. When she was interviewed she was the caretaker for younger sisters — at the age of a typical eighth grader. No kid should ever have to experience this.

In school board budget meetings we often agonize about our kids not having the latest computers or a full range of sports. A child in a refugee camp outdoor class, when asked to dream big, talked about “a real school with real walls.”

What we take for granted is out of reach of much of the world.

When I first learned how the Nazis killed so many people I asked my parents and other adults how this could have happened without the world knowing and acting sooner. They had no answers. I guess the more things change, the more they stay the same. We have a choice now. Do we learn more and act to help, or do we look the other way and leave future generations asking the question?

Because of her experiences, Stern lost her ability to take what Americans consider basics for granted. She also stopped buying into an “us/them” mentality.

“The material divide may be huge, but we are all human beings with the same goals and desires. … It may sound trite, but it’s absolutely true and often forgotten: what joins us as human beings is at least as important as what divides us.”


Julia Emily Hathaway is a mother of three and school committee vice chair in Veazie. She reviews books like “I Believe In Zero” on her blog. You can find it at juliasstardustcaught.blogspot.com.


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