A Holocaust Survivor and a Kenyan Boy

20 07 2010

Director Jennifer Arnold, Chris Mburu, Hilde Back, Jane Wanjiru Muigai during the Sundance Film Festival - Credit: Matt Carr, Getty Images

For Chris Mburu, a young, rural Kenyan student, the opportunity to make something out of his life would’ve ended if not for a small act of kindness.

Hilde Back was a young girl and a Jew who was helped by a stranger to escape from Nazi Germany to Sweden. She never saw her parents (who did not survive the Holocaust) again after leaving. She never forgot the kindness of that stranger and of the people who helped her once she got to Sweden. Hilde eventually became a school teacher on a modest salary, but sponsored…for about $15 a month…a young Kenyan student.

Because she paid his fees to go to secondary school, which his parents could not afford, that student…Chris Mburu…went on to eventually graduate from Harvard Law School and become a human rights lawyer for the United Nations. Inspired by Hilde’s generosity, in 2001 he decided to start a scholarship program to help other bright Kenyan students who can’t afford school fees and to name the scholarship program after her. With help, he tracked Hilde Back down and the two are now fast friends. She never knew that her small gift each month made such a difference in the life of one boy…and is now making a difference in the lives of countless other children.

Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline - Credit: http://asmallact.blogspot.com/

HBO is now airing an incredibly moving and important documentary film entitled A Small Act about this story and “the ripple effect one small act can have.” The world premiere of the movie was in January 2010 at the Sundance Film Festival. Jennifer Arnold wrote, directed, and produced this film.

It features three students…Kimani, Ruth, and Caroline…who are the top students in their school and who all have no hope of progressing in school due to the lack of ability to pay the $40 per month fees unless they get one of the coveted Hilde Back Education Fund scholarships.

I mostly subscribe to  HBO because of their documentaries. They are thoughtful, well done, and carry powerful messages. The message is easy to see in this one. So many of us think we don’t have the ability to make a difference in the life of another person so why bother? We may think we are barely scraping by ourselves and what little we could give just isn’t enough. This story shows that a small donation made monthly totally changed the life of Chris, who has gone on to change the lives of Kimani, Ruth, Caroline and so many more and they have all pledged to change the lives of students who come after them.

A few other ripple effects and how you can learn more:

Watch the trailer for the movie, and if you have HBO or if the film is being screened near you, watch the entire film. It will move you…hopefully to make your own small act.





Roman Polanski: Brilliant Director and PEDOPHILE

2 10 2009

In 1977, 44-year-old Roman Polanski drugged and vaginally and anally raped 13-year-old Samantha Geimer even while she repeatedly pleaded with him to stop. He fled the country in 1978 before his sentencing and has never returned to the U.S., not even when he won the Academy Award for Best Director for his movie The Pianist in 2002.

Besides that amazing movie, he has directed other noted movies such as Rosemary’s Baby and Chinatown. Polanski hasn’t just led a charmed life, though; he has experienced tragedy in his life. He escaped the Krakow ghetto in 1943 at age 10. His mother was executed in a concentration camp. His 8 1/2-month pregnant wife, the beautiful actress Sharon Tate, was murdered in 1969 by followers of Charles Manson.

But all of that doesn’t excuse a man…any man…of raping a child. Polanski was arrested on 9/26/09 at the Zurich, Switzerland airport; he was to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zurich Film Festival. Lots of famous Hollywood types (many directors themselves) like Martin Scorsese, David Lynch, Woody Allen, Mike Nichols, Michael Mann, and Whoopi Goldberg (who had the audacity to say “It wasn’t rape rape”) are DEFENDING Roman Polanski and THEY are acting outraged that he is being detained in a Swiss jail.

The man is a pedophile. Around two years before he raped Geimer, he had a “romantic relationship” (that’s how it’s reported on Wikipedia…folks, he’s a PEDOPHILE) with 15-year-old actress Nastassja Kinski.

This reminds me of the case of R&B singer R. Kelly. He’s probably most known for the song “I Think I Can Fly” and has a beautiful voice, but R. Kelly is also a pedophile. He has escaped being sent to jail several times even though he’s been found in possession of child pornography including a tape he made of him “having sex” with an underage girl. He also married his protege, the 15-year-old singer Aaliyah (who had to lie about her age to get married)…who he had worked with since she was 12 years old… in 1994.

The response in these two cases is outrageous. In both cases people have closed ranks and supported the guy who was one of them. The Hollywood types are supporting Polanski and African-Americans supported R. Kelly. I checked a forum where African-Americans post and the people speaking out on Polanski almost uniformly believe he should go to jail. People on that same forum stood up for R. Kelly (and also the batterer hip-hop singer Chris Brown) and thought he was being racially targeted when he was being tried for being a pedophile.

When will we stop defending child molesters? I don’t care if you’re rich or poor, famous or not famous, black or white, from the U.S. or from Saudi Arabia, Christian or Muslim, it is NEVER OKAY to molest children. And I am sick of the press saying that an adult “had sex with” a child or that it was “consensual.” It is NEVER consensual and it is not “having sex” when a child is involved. It is RAPE. Children are never responsible and they cannot freely consent to sex with an adult. It is always about adults using their power (and in the Polanski case also drugs) over children.

Bottom line? No matter how wonderful Roman Polanski’s movies have been, he is a fugitive from the law and a child rapist. He belongs in prison. PERIOD.





Chris Gardner and The Pursuit of Happyness

14 06 2009
Chris Gardner, Jaden, and Will Smith

Chris Gardner, Jaden, and Will Smith

I heard the powerful, and formerly homeless, Chris Gardner speak at the Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration in Austin on January 20, 2007. His booming voice and charismatic personality filled the large hall during his talk and enthralled me when I shook his hand afterward.

Chris is best known as the subject of the 2006 $300 million+ grossing movie “The Pursuit of Happyness.” The movie, for which Will Smith won an Academy Award nomination and Golden Globe award, is based on Chris’ New York Times #1 best selling book The Pursuit of Happyness. Jaden Smith, Will’s Son, plays Chris’ son in the movie.

The book details Gardner’s remarkable life journey. In his early years, he had to deal with poverty, domestic violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse, and family illiteracy. He had a violent, physically abusive step-father who beat him and his mother frequently and nearly killed her. His mother was imprisoned twice…once for trying to burn down their house with his step-father in it. He was put in foster care twice and was eventually adopted by relatives.

He became a hospital corpsman in the Navy and afterward, went on to become a research lab assistant in San Francisco and a medical equipment salesman. He left his wife to live with dental student Jackie Medina, with whom he had his first child Christopher Jr. in January 1981.

One day he encounted a well-dressed man (Bob Bridges) with a red Ferrari and asked him what he did. Bob told Chris that he was a stock broker and at that moment, Chris decided that’s what he wanted to do. On the very day that he had an interview (which Bob arranged), he had just gotten out of a 10-day stay in prison due to $1,200 in parking tickets he could not pay. Jackie had accused him of beating her (which he still denies) and disappeared along with all of his possessions and their child. He showed up at his interview wearing the casual clothes on his back and with no formal education or experience, got into the training program at Dean Witter Reynolds.

Chris Gardner and Son 1984

Chris Gardner and Son 1984

Through hard work, he was the top trainee and got his license and a job at Bear Stearns. After four months, Jackie returned with his son and Chris gained custody of him. Still not making much money and without the knowledge of his co-workers, Chris and his son were homeless for a year. They spent nights in a bathroom at the transit station, his office, at flophouses, and at parks. Eventually they were allowed to stay at the Glide shelter for homeless women while he saved money for a place for them to live.

In 1987, after just five years and with just $10,000, Chris started his own brokerage firm called Gardner Rich in Chicago. He sold part of his stake in the firm for several million dollars in 2006 and became founder and CEO of Christopher Gardner International Holdings.

Chris Gardner and Nelson Mandela

Chris Gardner and Nelson Mandela

Chris is a remarkable man who is making many positive things happen in the world. He met with Nelson Mandela and is working on a venture in South Africa that will bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars into the country.

Chris has helped out Glide, which gave him and his son shelter, and helped fund $50 million to build homeless low-income housing and provide emnployment to homeless people in San Francisco, where he was once homeless. He is involved in other philanthropic ventures, serves on several non-profit boards, and has received many awards, including the National Fatherhood Initiative’s Father of the Year honor.

Gardner’s second book, Start Where You Are: Life Lessons in Getting From Where You Are to Where You Want to Be, was published on May 12, 2009. Today the 55-year-old Chris Gardner, who also has a daughter Jacintha who was born in 1985, is worth an estimated $165 million.

 Thomas Jefferson penned these words in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

Despite unbelievable odds, Chris Gardner has worked hard and lived his life by these words. You can find out more about Chris on his website at www.ChrisGardnerMedia.com.

See this bigger-than-life, charismatic man in action in this video of Chris giving the commencement speech about a new vision of the American Dream at UC Berkeley on 5/22/09.

I’m so glad I met him. He gives me hope for our country and inspires me.

 





Who Wants to Buy a Slumdog Millionaire Actress?

19 04 2009
That’s what 9-year-old Rubina Ali’s impoverished father Rafiq Qureshi is asking. He’s offering her for sale. An undercover team from News of the World, self-described as “Britain’s biggest-selling newspaper featuring the best news, showbiz and sport exclusives,” traveled to Dubai after receiving a tip from someone close to Rubina’s family and posed as a wealthy Dubai family interested in illegally purchasing the girl.
 
Uncle, Undercover Team, Rubina's father (to her left), Rubina Ali

Uncle, Undercover Team, Rubina's father (to her left), Rubina Ali

One Middle Eastern family has legitimately offered to adopt the girl, but her father has gotten greedy and wants 200,000 pounds for her now (equal to $294,880 in dollars).

The News of the World article points out the father’s utter lack of concern of what could happen to his daughter if she were sold:

Trafficking of poor Indian children to the Middle East, where they are forced to risk their lives as camel jockeys or subjected to sexual abuse, is common in the Mumbai slums. But that did not deter Rafiq.

Children are often seen as commodities in poor areas of India and other countries and parents are left with difficult choices. Rubina’s father said: “We live in one room, seven of us sleep on the floor. I earn £2 to £3 a day. I have to consider what’s best for me, my family and Rubina’s future.”

It is difficult to imagine living in such poverty as the people who live in the Mumbai slums. If you have seen the movie “Slumdog Millionaire,” you got a glimpse of how they live…and of how Rubina lives.

Rubina’s father is being an opportunist. He knows that she can attract the attention of wealthy people who can give her a better life. In that regard, he is no different from the father of Madonna’s Malawi child giving his son up for Madonna to adopt so he could have a better life. Rafiq Qureshi also sees this as his one chance in life to provide for himself and the rest of his family.

To raffle his child off to the highest bidder sends chills up my spine. It is to see a child as an object…something to sell to get money. I think of the preciousness of a daughter…the hopes for her future, the love she gives and brings to the family, the delight in seeing her grow up and develop into her own person, the pride in knowing that she came from you, etc….I cannot imagine under any circumstance selling her or giving her up.

Is this what poverty does? Harden people to the point that they don’t see children and women as precious? Or is there something in the character and genetics of people…people who are so callous and selfish and money-grubbing that they would sell their own daughter even in the face that she could be prostituted…that leads to their poverty? Can one be so bankrupt in morals and love and basic caring for a child and also expect to live in anything but poverty? Don’t the two go hand in hand?

To realize the preciousness of a child is to see oneself as abundant. All the riches in the world come with having a child. And to see a child only as something to be sold means that the poor cannot see true abundance when they have it and will never truly attain it.

UPDATE 4/21/09: The producers of the Slumdog Millionaire movie have now hired a social worker to look after Rubina after this happened. Rubina’s father has been arrested and there is a huge uproar about this in India. Rubina’s biological mother is demanding custody of Rubina.

UPDATE 4/22/09: Officials have released Rubina’s father and say they have no proof he tried to sell her.





Mommy Died in the War

9 04 2009

Since 9/11, over 8,000 U.S. children have lost a parent in the military, according to the Department of Defense. These are the young casualties of war that we don’t talk about or even think about very often. Today I watched a 2007 movie “Grace is Gone” on HBO and I thought about it and cried…a lot.

grace-is-gone-movieIn the movie, John Cusack plays the stoic and sad father of 8- and 12-year-old girls whose mother Grace is a sargent in Iraq. He is notified that Grace died in combat and is at a loss for how to tell his daughters. He impetuously decides to take them on a bonding adventure, a testament to the love and sacrifice of parents that we try to ease the pain of our children in any way we can.

The movie was scored with beautiful music by Clint Eastwood, who was nominated for two Golden Globes for the score and one song. I could really feel the emotions of the father as he agonized over the loss of his wife and his daughters’ loss of their mother.

Over 8000 children have felt that loss due to our being in Iraq and Afghanistan. They already were made to sacrifice while the parent was away from home, but with a sudden death, they aren’t even given the opportunity to say goodbye to their parent. That parent will never come to their future soccer games and ballet recitals and graduations and weddings and baby christenings. That parent will never again hug them or tuck them in at night or comfort them when they’re scared or tell them they’re proud of how well they’re doing in school. All that is gone.

The child(ren) and the remaining parent are left to carry on…to grieve, to find some new normal in life, to wonder why this happened to them, and to ache for the loss of someone who can never be replaced.

It is important to remember that sacrifice comes even from small children in these wars we are fighting. And children suffer not only here in the U.S., but also in Iraq, where it is estimated that more than five million children (at the end of 2007; source: Iraq’s anti-corruption board) are orphans, mostly due to the war.

Take the time to watch Grace is Gone on HBO or rent the DVD. It is moving. It will touch you. If you want to help out families who have lost a loved one in the war, consider donating to one of these organizations.

  • Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund – provides unrestricted grants to families of fallen troops
  • Fallen Patriot Fund – provides financial grants to the families of those killed or seriously injured in Iraq
  • Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) – provides services to all who have lost a loved one while serving in the U.S. armed forces
  • Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society – provides financial assistance and emergency grants to families and survivors.




  • Taking Chance Home with Dignity – Lt. Col. Strobl’s Personal Experience of the Cost of War

    21 02 2009

    The stirring HBO movie “Taking Chance” brought tears to my eyes. It shows the reverence, dignity, honor, and respect with which soldiers killed in Iraq and Afghanistan are brought home.

    Starring Kevin Bacon and premiering today on HBO, it was shown at

    Michael Strobl - Credit: PBS.org

    Michael Strobl - Credit: PBS.org

    Sundance Film Festival and competed for the Grand Jury Prize. Kevin plays Lieutenant Colonel Michael Strobl, who volunteers – out of some seeming guilt at not being in Iraq himself – to escort the body of 19-year-old Private First Class Chance Phelps home.

    PFC Chance Phelps

    PFC Chance Phelps

    Chance was killed in Iraq on April 9, 2004. Strobl and those who assisted at each point along the way with transporting the body of PFC Phelps were deeply impacted and respectful and the cost of war was felt by all.

    Lt. Col. Strobl is a Desert Storm veteran and served in the Marine Corps from 1983-2007. He daily read the list of Marines killed in Iraq and came across the name of PFC Phelps, who was from his home town in Colorado. That made his decision to serve as an escort for Phelps’ body personal and something he felt he had to do.

    He kept a journal on his experience of escorting PFC Phelps home and from this came an article for the Marine Corps Gazette, which was published in July, 2004. I cannot access that article, but found a shorter version of it, which was published online at OrthodoxyToday.org in May, 2004. The article was widely circulated on the Internet and touched many people. It was given to Executive Producer Brad Krevoy when he attended the funeral of a friend’s son, who was killed in Iraq. He contacted Chance’s family and they agreed to allow the story to made into a film. Stobl went on to co-write the screenplay for the movie.

    From the HBO site for this film:

    ‘Taking Chance’ chronicles one of the silent, virtually unseen journeys that takes place every day across the country, bearing witness to the fallen and all those who, literally and figuratively, carry them home. A uniquely non-political film about the war in Iraq, the film pays tribute to all of the men and women who have given their lives in military service as well as their families.

    The life and death of Chance Phelps have touched a lot of people. The Chance Phelps Organization sponsors Run4Chance races and gives the proceeds to the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund, which helps them to “…continue [their] vital mission of service to our wounded and critically ill Marines, Sailors and their families.”

    Here is a short HBO clip on taking the story from script to screen. Kevin Bacon, Lt. Col Strobl, and others are interviewed about the story and the movie. HBO will be showing this many times . I hope that you will check out the schedule and make a point to watch it. It is incredibly moving.

    Coffins of Soldiers Killed in Iraq

    Coffins of Soldiers Killed in Iraq being Taken off Plane at Dover Air Force Base - Credit: AFP, Getty Images

    UPDATE: On 2/26/09 Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said that photos can now be taken of flag-draped coffins of soldiers if the family of the deceased soldier agrees.

    UPDATE 4/5/09: For the first time in 18 years, the media today witnessed the return of a soldier killed overseas. You can read about it here.

    UPDATE 7/16/09: Today it was announced that this movie is nominated for an Emmy Award for best made for television movie and Kevin Bacon is also nominated for an Emmy Award as best actor in a made for television movie.

    UPDATE 1/17/10: Today Kevin Bacon won a Golden Globe for his role in this movie. The movie was also nominated for a Golden Globe award.