Hidden in plain sight: A different kind of hero

Jul 10, 2020

Many of us grew up watching superheroes wearing capes and costumes. It isn’t hard to spot a hero making the world a better place when they’re flying from building to building, saving victims and fighting bad guys wrapped in neon spandex. 

But what if you could discover a different kind of hero? The everyday, down-to-earth, hard-working, sweat-and-tears kind. You might have seen some of them wearing white lab coats, latex gloves, face shields and hard hats. Sometimes they’re blending in, wearing nothing special at all.

Largely unseen and unrecognized, ordinary people with extraordinary hearts have done the difficult work of speaking the truth, fighting for justice and protecting the vulnerable. Throughout history—when hunger raged, violence threatened, or crises emerged, hidden heroes were there–hidden in plain sight.

Watch this video:
There are hidden heroes everywhere

Ordinary people. Extraordinary impact.

Posted by World Vision Canada on Monday, 25 May 2020

In 1975—after thousands fled for safety during the Vietnamese Refugee Crisis—this hero disobeyed direct orders.

a man interacts with a small childDr. Stan Mooneyham led World Vision to rescue stranded Vietnamese refugees in 1979. Photo: Jon Kubly

Following the war in 1975, over 3 million people fled Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia by boat. Since the countries surrounding Vietnam refused to accept refugees because of political and racial tension, fleeing by sea was the only chance at survival. These refugees known as “the boat people” were willing to risk everything to leave the dangers of home. 

Many NGOs and organizations were advised not to get involved. Against all advice, risk and instructions from other governments—Stan Mooneyham, World Vision’s CEO at the time, raised $500,000 to buy an old freighter. Partnering with World Vision Honduras, Mooneyham and his team legally registered the boat and set sail on a rescue mission. They called it Operation Seasweep.

A group of Vietnamese refugees in a boat.Ninety-three people, including 27 children, seven elders and three pregnant women were rescued at sea. Photo: Dr. Stan Mooneyham

Ninety-three people, including 27 children, seven elders and three pregnant women were taken aboard and given boat packs filled with clean water, medical kits and other life-saving supplies. 

The rescue ship became the first international operation to provide food and medical assistance to stranded refugees in 1979. 

In 1994—when the dust settled after the Rwandan Genocide—these heroes chose to make peace.

A man and a woman from Rwanda stand together under a tree in a graveyard.Genocide survivor Alice Mukarurinda with genocide perpetrator Emmanuel Ndayisaba (the man who cut off her hand), near the Nyamata genocide memorial in south eastern Rwanda. Photo: Ilana Rose

In 1994, the Hutu ethnic majority in Rwanda targeted the Tutsi minority and murdered as many as 800,000 people. What began with Hutu nationalists in the capital of Kigali spread with shocking speed and brutality across the country. Ordinary people were provoked by the Hutu Power government and local officials to take up arms against their neighbours.

By July 1994, after the killings had slowed and stopped, World Vision got to work providing life-saving emergency aid to the displaced, finding homes for children who were orphaned, rebuilding houses and helping people resettle in safety. But surviving Rwandans were in desperate need of social and emotional recovery. To address this head-on, World Vision implemented peacebuilding and reconciliation initiatives, which laid the foundation on which many lives, families, and communities are built today. 

From the same community growing up, Alice and Emmanuel were caught up in 100 days of killings. Emmanuel remembers being turned against his childhood friend and was ordered to kill Alice. 

Watch this video to learn more about their story (Warning: video contains graphic content.):
Rwanda 25 Years Later: Alice's Story

Warning: video contains graphic content. It's been 25 years since the Rwandan genocide, when over the span of 100 days, 800,000 people died. The country was devastated. Survivors were physically and psychologically devastated. Families and communities were decimated. World Vision began working in Rwanda in 1994, providing emergency aid to displaced people and helping them to resettle. Peacebuilding and reconciliation programs laid the foundation on which many lives, families and communities are being rebuilt today. People who were once enemies have worked hard to heal, reconcile and rehabilitate. This is the story of Alice and her path to forgiveness. Her bravery inspires us and has helped many others.

Posted by World Vision Canada on Saturday, 6 April 2019

“The attackers had set the time to start the killings,” Alice says. “Around 10:00AM, someone would blow a whistle to give the sign to start. Thousands of people were brutalized and killed during the day in mass crowds. Around 3PM, the whistle would blow again as a signal to end for the daily activities.”

Alice was targeted and viciously beaten with nailed clubs. She saw her family murdered before her eyes. “[They] took my baby and cut her in two parts,” she remembers. Soon after, Alice collapsed and became unconscious. “This is how they left me,” she says. “They thought I was dead.”

After 3 weeks of hiding in a swamp, struggling for food and water, her left side paralyzed, Alice was found. She spent 2 months in hospital, learning how to walk and speak again. It wasn’t until weeks later that she remembered her family was murdered. 

Because peace and reconciliation programs were being offered through World Vision in partnership with local churches, Emmanuel decided to confront his past and apologize to Alice. “I led her away from the group, knelt in front of her, with my arms up and told her, ‘Please forgive me. I am the reason for your sufferings.’” She didn’t forgive him right away.

Overwhelmed by her trauma, she fainted. “It took me a whole week to forgive him,” says Alice. When she was ready, she approached Emmanuel. When they were face to face, Alice spoke the words, “I forgive you.” Emmanuel was overcome with emotion and they embraced each other. 

People were surprised to see this reconciliation. “Suffering is different from forgiving,” says Alice. “Whenever you think about your experiences, you feel sorrowful. You can cry or feel depressed, but when you remember you have forgiven, you feel relieved.” This act of courage and mercy set an example for the community, a path toward healing.

This is forgiveness, reconciliation, freedom. Today, the Hutu and Tutsi divide no longer exists. “We are all Rwandans,” says Alice. 

Thanks to heroes like Alice and Emmanuel, peace was modelled so that people like them can know that healing is possible and move forward together.

In 1983—when a famine took Ethiopia hostage—this hero pushed past her discomfort.

An Ethiopian woman holds an old photograph and smiles.
At 17, Lissane, worked as a volunteer nurse in a feeding centre in Lalibela, in northern Ethiopia in the 1980s during the famine. Today she is the Health and HIV AIDS Officer with World Vision Ethiopia. Photo: Kevin Cook

Between 1975-1984 was the toughest time in Ethiopian history, more than two million people were dead as a result of a severe famine. As hunger spread across the country, the Ethiopian government began supplying food rations to families in need. By then, almost all maize and teff—both staples for an Ethiopian diet—had disappeared from the market. Whatever was left was priced far too high for the average family to afford. With 1.2 million dead, 2.5 million people internally displaced, almost 200,000 children orphaned and 400,000 refugees fleeing, this was considered the worst famine to hit the country in over a century.

With millions starving, World Vision got to work feeding over 3.2 million. One of the many feeding centres housed starving and malnourished children and their mothers. The centre in Lalibela was where Lissane, a 17-year-old volunteer nurse, was assigned. She was the youngest nurse in her province.

The work was far from easy. “I wasn’t prepared for what I found there,” she says. “More than 10 children were dying every week in our feeding centre alone.” Lissane would sometimes stay up all night with babies and children who were suffering, fighting starvation. 

It was common for Lissane to work 12-hour shifts, day after day, to feed children and families in the centre.

“Mothers were asking me, ‘How can we feed our children? We don’t have any food, and we don’t have any money.’ So, we began buying different types of food from the market, mixing them together to feed their children,” Lissane says.

With hunger rampant and claiming so many lives, she could almost see the effects spreading like wildfire before her eyes. She knew that children’s malnourished bodies were more susceptible to other diseases like malaria, pneumonia, measles and diarrhea, so treatment had to be fast and effective. “With children, we must always act immediately,” she says. “If we do not take immediate action, they may die.” 

She quickly engaged World Vision Ethiopia in setting up seven emergency treatment centres and one therapeutic care program with the support of the national government. In the early summer alone, 1,400 children had recovered from malnutrition, thanks to Lissane’s compassion and care. 

Nurses like Lissane are the reason many children and families survived the famine.

In 2011—when the refugee crisis displaced Syrians—this hero offered up her own home.

A Syrian woman stands with her back to the camera, looking out over her balcony to the town below.Ahlam is an aid worker, mother, grandmother and community leader living in Idlib, North-West Syria. She has trained more than 6,000 humanitarian workers on protection during her career. Photo: World Vision Syria staff

Since the Syrian civil war began on March 15th, 2011, families have endured brutal conflict that has killed millions, torn the nation apart and set back the standard of living by decades. The crisis, now in its 10th year, is the largest refugee and displacement crisis of our time. 

World Vision was, and still is, on the ground, reaching out to relief agencies, aid workers and volunteers, sheltering families and providing safe spaces for children. 

Ahlam, a World Vision staff member, trained more than 6,000 humanitarian workers during the throes of the initial crisis in 2013. She worked with women to empower themselves and their families, advocate for human rights and has housed several families in her home.

“I have witnessed a lot of suffering in Idlib,” says Ahlam. “The conflict has destroyed essential public services. So many children have lost the chance at an education. The loss of income and employment with the rising costs for basic food items is pushing Syrians to the depths of desperation.” 

Ahlam tells the story of one family she encountered on the run. “I was by the side of the road providing assistance to families who were escaping the fighting. A family came by on an old 3-wheel motorbike. A heavily pregnant woman was sitting by her husband’s side carrying a toddler, and three small children on the other side. They had just a few plastic bags of firewood and clothes with them. The children looked terrified and exhausted. The husband told me that his wife had gone into labour as they fled under the bombardment and was having contractions. They didn’t know where they were going.

 “We helped find them a place in a shared room with another family, and the mother gave birth there. Three days later they had to move again. The area they moved to was heavily bombed, so they fled once again. Imagine that mother—just having given birth with no clothes or blankets or food, fleeing from place to place with her children in the winter cold—this is life for Syrians today.”

a young Syrian boy stands in the mud and snow at an IDP camp.
Ahmad*, 4, standing in a snow covered internally displaced person's camp in north-western Syria. Photo: Omar Braika

Ahlam’s says her efforts to help equip, empower and protect innocent lives feels futile in moments like these, but nonetheless, she persisted by any means necessary. “[At one point] I had four displaced families living in my house,” she says. 

Seeing strong, resilient people dealing with oppression and violence tugs at Ahlam. “It has taken a toll on me,” she says. But she remains hopeful. “On the other hand, it gives me great pleasure to see how I am giving positive energy to people around me. My community trusts me and thinks highly of me. It shows that I am doing something.”

Thanks to bearers of hope like Ahlam, Syria is making strides toward repairing the damage, protecting their people and reclaiming their home.

In 2014—during the Ebola virus outbreak—these heroes joined forces.

Two Sierra Leonian men smile for the camera.Rev. Peter Kainwo, Pastor of the United Brethren in Christ Church, and Alhaji Mustapha Alpha Koker, Chief Imam of the Bo district Imam teamed up to teach Ebola prevention to their congregations, saving many lives in the process. Photo: Sahr Ngaujah

According to the World Health Organization, the 2014 Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa was the “largest, most severe and most complex Ebola epidemic” in history. More than 28,000 were infected and over 11,000 people died before the international public health emergency ended in June 2016, with most cases occurring in Guinea, Sierra Leone, and Liberia.  

In the midst of the crisis, World Vision worked to prevent the spread of the virus by monitoring temperatures and distributing hygiene kits. Those who were infected were offered potentially life-saving treatments and loved ones were given a safe and proper burial.

Knowing that people of faith would be turning to church leadership for clarity in times of confusion, Channels of Hope—a program that informs and empowers faith leaders to communicate about important issues—was employed in Sierra Leone.

From that training session, one Pastor and one Imam teamed up to teach Ebola prevention to their congregations: Rev. Peter Kainwo, Pastor of the United Brethren in Christ Church, and Alhaji Mustapha Alpha Koker, Chief Imam of the Bo district. 

“At first, people denied that Ebola was real, believing that it was some sort of rumour or political agenda,” says Pastor Kainwo. Even some other religious leaders were spreading misinformation. The two clerics knew they needed to do something. Even more so, they knew they needed to work together.

So, how did they get their congregation’s attention? “We swapped pulpits,” Pastor Kainwo says.

A Sierra Leonian man speaks in front of a roomful of people.
Rev. Peter Kainwo speaks to congregants at the Bo district mosque with Alhaji Mustapha Alpha Koker, Chief Imam. Through Channels of Hope, the pair teamed up to teach Ebola prevention to their congregations, saving many lives in the process. Photo: Sahr Ngaujah

It worked. The Christian and Muslim communities appreciated the wake-up call. But more importantly, they changed their behaviour: washing hands and practising safe burials. This act of bold teamwork prevented many cases from spreading and gave families the closure they deserved when burying their loved ones. According to Imam Koker, “Channels of Hope gave us the opportunity to prove what we could do as religious leaders for this country.”

Both clerics recognize the combined efforts weren’t just about belief, but about brotherhood. “Doctrine divides, but service unites,” Pastor Kainwo says. “We didn’t come together just to discuss our beliefs. We came together to work and help save lives.”

Thanks to leaders like Pastor Kainwo and Imam Koker, their communities were able to slow the spread of the ebola virus and save many lives.  

Hidden heroes throughout history: they’re often right in the thick of it, largely ignored or unseen. You can spot them rolling up their sleeves like Mooneyham, seeking forgiveness like Alice and Emmanuel and protecting the vulnerable like Imam Koker and Pastor Kainwo. You might catch them feeding the hungry like Lissanne or housing the stranger like Ahlam. Sometimes they’re in the epicentre of a crisis. Sometimes, the work is done in the aftermath.

One thing’s for sure: they are the ordinary people making extraordinary impacts. 

Learn how ordinary women and men can have an extraordinary impact. Let’s celebrate our hidden heroes together! Share what makes them a hero on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn and tag us @worldvisioncan and #HiddenHero

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