The Saint Among Princes

Emir Abdelkader was an Algerian religious and military leader who led a tenacious struggle against the French colonial invasion in the mid-19th century. An Islamic scholar and philosopher from the mystical Sufi tradition, he unexpectedly found himself leading a military campaign, after a meeting of tribesmen elected him as leader. He built up a coalition of Algerian tribes from across the region, successfully holding out for years against one of the most powerful armies in Europe (as well as the second largest colonial empire at the time).

Abdelkader was well regarded by allies and opponents alike, not only for his military and political acumen, but for his markedly good character. He sought counsel from both Jews and Christians, and respected their religious traditions, seeking to create an Algerian state for all faiths. He was honorable and merciful to combatants, ensuring that prisoners were treated well; in one instance, he released prisoners because he could no longer afford to care for them properly. France’s highest-ranking military leader declared him one of the three greatest living men (the other two were Egyptians also known for their skills on and off the battlefield).

Due to this  well-earned grudging respect, when the sheer weight of the French military finally forced him to surrender, Abdelkader was permitted to live in exile in Ottoman-ruled Damascus, with the French government paying his pension, on the condition he would never disturb Algeria again. He lived a quiet life dedicated to debating and writing Islamic theology and philosophy, until another event again catapulted him into fame and world renown.

Years into his exile, a conflict broke out in the region between Muslims, Druze, and Christians. Abdelkader warned local authorities and French diplomats that the Christians of Damascus were in danger. When violence finally broke out, he sheltered large numbers of Christians and ordered his sons to go throughout the city to offer Christians aid and protection. Reports from various survivors and religious orders attested to Abdelkader’s decisive role in saving thousands, and he became an international celebrity.

His erstwhile enemy France increased his pension and awarded him the Legion of Honor, the nation’s highest military award. Greece, Turkey, and even the Vatican also bestowed him with official honors; he is one of the few non-Christians to have the Order of Pope Pius. Even Abraham Lincoln recognized his deed, giving him a pair of inlaid pistols that are now on display in Algeria’s national museum.

For these reasons, he was widely hailed across the world as the “Saint among the Princes, the Prince among the Saints”.

The Treaty of Tlatelolco

46497943_10161228587365472_3220843945760129024_nDid you know that Mexico played a leading role in keeping nuclear weapons out of the Western Hemisphere? (Outside the U.S. of course.)

Following the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, Mexican diplomat Alfonso García Robles was a driving force for an initiative to develop a framework for keeping the region nuclear-free.

Following a series of conferences with nations from all over the region, the 1967 Treaty of Tlatelolco was drafted to prohibit and prevent the “testing, use, manufacture, production or acquisition by any means whatsoever of any nuclear weapons” and the “receipt, storage, installation, deployment and any form of possession of any nuclear weapons.” (The treaty is named after the district in Mexico City where the meetings were held.) Continue reading

Greek ““Hero of the Aegean” Who Saved Thousands of Refugees Dies

It seems to always be the case that the most heroic individuals remain obscure even at the height of their courage, let alone later in life. Of course, that speaks even more to their heroism: they do good for its own sake, not for fame, glory, or external validation.

Thus, I doubt that Captain Kyriakos Papadopoulos, who died of a heart attack this past Thursday, would mind how little-known he is outside his native Greece and the global humanitarian community.  He was too busy being one of the thousands of unsung heroes that were conducting rescue operations throughout the Mediterranean following the “migrant crisis” that began in 2015.  During the peak migration flows from the Middle East into Greece, the Hellenic Coast Guard Captain, a 44-year-old father of two, feverishly conducted rescue operations aboard patrol vessel 605, saving over 5,000 lives in the waters between the Greek island of Lesbos and Turkey.

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For his dedication and selflessness, he was dubbed “the hero of the Aegean” or “the guardian angel of refugees” in Greek media, and was made the subject of an award-winning documentary about his efforts4.1 Miles (named after the short but treacherous distance between Lesbos and Turkey). It was at the 89th Academy Awards in 2017 that Papadopoulos displayed his characteristic humility and compassion, as recounted by the English-language Greek newspaper, The National Herald:

Asked about the awards and honors, Papadopoulos noted that “the greatest honor is knowing we saved ​​a two-year-old child who was trampled in the boat, pulled unconscious, and brought back to life, and the two hundred and more unaccompanied children and the over five thousand refugees we rescued by the end of 2014 until today.”

In the documentary, Papadopoulos expresses sympathy for the refugees and being at a loss to help console them. He even alluded to the random luck of geography in explaining how his country remains relatively stable while neighbors endure bloodshed and chaos.

In a way, I panic, too. I’m scared. I can’t reassure them …When I look into their eyes, I see their memories of war. They come from war. They escape the bombs that fall on their homes. And we see these families … losing each other in the Greek sea. In the sea of a peaceful country because of the way they have to cross.

Greek Maritime Minister Fotis Kouvelis said Papadopoulos “showed Europe what the values of humanity, solidarity, equality and peace mean to Greece”, while the mayor of Lesbos tweeted that his city is poorer following the captain’s loss. All this comes amid the continuing struggles of Greece to accommodate its refugees, most of whom languish in overcrowded and dilapidated camps, or live on the streets of major cities.

Despite humanity’s failure to sort out the refugee crisis—and for that matter the conflicts and calamities that precipitate it—I can derive some solace from the many unsung heroes like Papadopoulos who are still on the ground doing all that they can to stem the tide of human misery.

 

The Judge Who Stood Up to the Nazis

KreyssigLothar Kreyssig was the only German judge to oppose the Nazi’s Action T4 euthanasia program, which targeted those with mental and physical disabilities and other “undesirables”.

Appointed a district court judge in 1928 during the Weimar Republic, Kreyssig opposed the Nazis from the start: he resisted pressure to join the Nazi Party—citing his need to maintain judicial independence—and joined the Confessing Church, which opposed Nazi-backed efforts to form a “Protestant Reich Church”. He consistently displayed contempt and insubordination toward the regime, including slipping out of a ceremony in his court when a bust of Hitler was unveiled; openly protesting the suspension of three judges who failed to enforce “Aryan laws”; and referring to Nazi church policies as “injustice masquerading in the form of law”. Continue reading

The Japanese Diplomat Who Saved Thousands of Jews

Chiune “Sempo” Sugihara was a Japanese government official who, as vice consul of Japan in Lithuania, helped over 6,000 Jews flee certain death during WWII, risking his career and his life. Hundreds of Jewish refugees arrived in Sugihara’s consulate, trying to get a visa to travel to Japan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese Empire had very strict immigration procedures, requiring applicants to pay large fees and to have a third destination lined up to exit Japan. The dutiful Sugihara contacted the Foreign Ministry three times for instructions, being told each time that he could not issue the visas.

533101_10151430822115472_1457010455_nAware of the mounting danger Jews faced, Sugihara ignored his superiors and issued ten-day visas to Jews. This level of disobedience was highly unusual – and risky – within the stringent culture of the militaristic Japanese government. With the Soviet Union occupying Lithuania – though not yet at war with Japan – he persuaded Soviet officials to allow Jews to travel through the country via the Trans-Siberian Railway, which would take them to the Pacific near Japan. He reportedly spent 18-20 hours a day handwriting visas, producing a typical month’s worth of transit documents daily. These were to heads of households, which allowed entire families to leave via a single visa. The exceedingly polite diplomat had the refugees call him “Sempo”, a variation of his name that was easier for them to pronounce. Continue reading

Louis Brandeis

On this day in 1916, Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish person to be appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, where he would serve until 1939.

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Born to immigrants fleeing antisemitism from what was then the Austrian Empire, he graduated Harvard Law at only 20 years old, with what is rumored to be the highest GPA in the school’s history.

As early as 1890, he helped develop the concept of a “right to privacy” and rallied against big banks, powerful corporations, monopolies, political corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were anathema to American values. As an attorney, he devoted most of his time to public causes, earning the moniker of the “People’s Lawyer” for his insistence on working pro bono in order to take on the most important issues of the day. He was also dubbed the “Robin Hood of the law” for his fight against railroad monopolies, defense of workers’ rights, and the conceptualization of the newly created Federal Trade Commission, which protected consumers from unfair business practices. He was also recognized for developing the “Brandeis Brief,” which relied on expert testimony from people in other professions to support his case, setting a new precedent in evidence presentation.

Brandeis’ nomination to the Court was so fraught that, for the first time in its history, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on it. According to fellow Justice William O. Douglas, it was controversial because Brandeis was a “militant crusader for social justice whoever his opponent might be. He was dangerous not only because of his brilliance, his arithmetic, his courage. He was dangerous because he was incorruptible… [and] the fears of the Establishment were greater because Brandeis was the first Jew to be named to the Court.” Indeed, opponents regarded him as an anti business “radical” and “agitator” who lacked the “dispassionate temperament” needed to be a judge. Blatant anti semitism was, of course, also a factor. But enough people came to his defense that he won the nomination 47 to 22.

Ultimately, Brandeis became one of the most influential figures ever to serve on the Court, his opinions recognized by legal scholars as some of the “greatest defenses” of freedom of speech and the right to privacy ever written by a Justice. Throughout my first year of law school, I came across many of his brilliant opinions, many of them lonely dissents in the face of familiar uphill battles against privacy violations — see his prescient dissenting opinion in Olmstead v. United States (1928):

The makers of our Constitution undertook to secure conditions favorable to the pursuit of happiness. They recognized the significance of man’s spiritual nature, of his feelings and of his intellect. They knew that only part of the pain, pleasure and satisfactions of life are to be found in material things. They sought to protect Americans in their beliefs, their thoughts, their emotions and their sensations. They conferred against the government, the right to be let alone—the most comprehensive of rights and the right most valued by civilized men.

Noor Inayat Khan: Pacifist Muslim, British Spy, and WWII Heroine

Back in 2014, PBS aired a docudrama called Enemy of the Reich: The Noor Inayat Khan Storywhich centered on one of World War Two’s most fascinating and unlikely war heroes: a Russian-born Indian-American Muslim who was steeped in pacifism yet went on to serve the British war effort in occupied Paris. (There’s a mouthful!)

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A British commemorative stamp, circa 2014. (Courtesy of NPR)

NPR did a feature on the film (which I still have yet to see), including an interview with its executive producer, Alex Kronemer. Continue reading

Khassan Baiev

d091d0b0d0b8d0b5d0b22c_d0a5d0b0d181d0b0d0bd_d096d183d0bdd0b8d0b4d0bed0b2d0b8d187Some years ago, as an  undergrad at FIU, I had chance meeting with one of the greatest heroes I’ve ever known, a man I hadn’t even heard of until that day. It has stayed with me to this day as an enduring reminder of the many unsung and unknown heroes around us who go about their lives without praise, notice, or popular knowledge.

Khassan Baiev is a Russian-born doctor, now living in the U.S., who risked his life to indiscriminately help those in need in the midst of a bloody warzone. As a sickly and frail Chechen youth growing up in the Soviet Union, he spent years building up his mind and body, eventually becoming both a pro athlete and a surgeon (at around fifty years old, I recall him looking more fit than some people my age). He held strongly to the ideals of humanism, altruism, and the Hippocratic oath. As a Muslim and non-Russian, he faced discrimination along the way, but ultimately made a promising career in Moscow.

In 1994, when Chechnya attempted to break from the Russian Federation, the response was horrific. The Russian Army leveled almost every building in the capital, Grozny, and was virtually indiscriminate about the places it bombed and shelled. Perhaps 200,000 were killed in the course of the conflict, and many more psychologically and physically disabled. Dr. Baiev left the safety of distant Russian capital and went where he was needed; he was perhaps the only surgeon in the entire region. At great risk to his life, he adhered to his duty as a doctor and treated everyone and anyone he could, including Chechen militants and Russian soldiers. He explained how his Hippocratic oath, as a doctor, adhered him to helping whoever needed it, regardless of their allegiances.

It was enough dealing with hundreds of patients in the middle of a war zone, but given the circumstances, Dr. Baiev was soon forced to make due with few resources. When his hospital in Grozny was destroyed by Russian shelling, he moved his operations to an abandoned clinic in his hometown of Alkan Kala, restoring it with the help of locals and his own funds. Anesthesia was handmade; running water, electricity, and gas were typically unavailable. Wounds had to be dressed with sour cream or egg yolks. Baiev relied on household tools for his procedures, including a power drill for brain surgery and a hacksaw for amputations; he did 67 amputations and eight brain procedures in the span of just three days. He and his nurses, some of whom were killed, even donated their own blood for patients. This went on for six years of almost constant warfare.

Given the overwhelming demand for his services, Baiev would go days without sleeping, taking in an average of 40 to 50 patients. He never asked questions of those in need — he simply did his job and moved on to the next patient. He and the village elders kept the peace between the soldiers on both sides, who were sometimes in the same hospital, giving them equal medical treatment. But his willingness to help anyone put him on bad terms with both sides of the war, each of whom regarded him as a traitor. Bounties and arrests were put on his head. He was kidnapped several times and almost killed several more. He remained to do his job anyway, and only after an official warrant for his arrest did he reluctantly leave to America for the sake of his family.

He has returned to Chechnya several times since the war, even organizing a group dedicated to providing affordable medical care and to raising awareness of the brutality of the conflict. He had all his procedures recorded as evidence of Russian atrocities, which the Russian government denied (allegedly going so far as to kill some of his patients as a cover up). I saw some of the horrific footage myself; I still can’t imagine how someone could take all that trauma daily for several years.

Unfortunately, there is still much for him to do, as rates of birth defects, psychological trauma, and cancer remain high from the effects of the war. As I speak he still goes to his native republic to help despite occasional threats on his life.

I subsequently purchased his book, The Oath: A Surgeon Under Fire, and had the honor of having him autograph it. When I saw him up close, I was struck by how large and strong he looked; the man was in damn good shape. Yet he had a really somber and weathered look to him, and I could feel that presence as well. He had a firm handshake and a force of personality, but at the same time maintained a quiet and humble demeanor, fitting for a man who risked certain death for simply doing his job without any want of attention or money. He is exactly the kind of man I hope to be, and exactly the sort of person who stays with you years later, inspiring you to be the best damn person you can be.

The U.N. Official Who Quietly Saved the World From Nuclear Annihilation

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Though they are in charge of an organization that represents virtually all of humanity, Secretary-Generals of the United Nations — described variably as the “world’s moderators” and the “chief administrative officers” of the U.N. — have never been household names. Not many could name or recognize the current officeholder, António Guterres, the former prime minister of Portugal, let alone any of his eight predecessors.

Yet one of these men, a self effacing and bespectacled diplomat from Burma named U Thant* not only served with distinction as a capable administrator — of what was then a young, bold, and largely untested institution — but true to his role as the “world’s mediator”, he saved humanity from one of its closest calls with armageddon: the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Continue reading

Slain Hero of El Salvador’s Poor and Oppressed to Be Made Catholic Saint

As a thoroughly secular person, I do not put much stock into things like sainthood. But if anyone deserves to be given accorded a status revered by over a billion people worldwide, it is Archbishop Oscar Romero, who died on this day in 1980 for standing up against a murderous (and U.S. backed) regime.

When he was appointed Archbishop of San Salvador, El Salvador in 1977, the country was embroiled in bloody civil unrest resulting from decades of military misrule; the subsequent conflict would claim over 75,000 lives in a country of just 4.6 million.  Continue reading