To Aid a Stranger

Just last week the world was riveted as we waited to learn the fate of 12 youth soccer players and their coach trapped in a flooded cave system in Thailand. I’ve been in a cave system (in my case, the Camuy River Cave Park underground river system in Puerto Rico), and I can say from experience that the otherworldly feeling can be likened to waking up in the middle of the night and for a moment forgetting where you are in the darkness. It is hard to think of a more terrifying experience for these young men and their coach.

Imagine being deep underground, more than two miles from where you started. Water is rising, and your only way out is blocked. You scramble to the highest point you can find, hoping and praying that the water does not reach you. You are wet and begin to shiver in the cold. You know that no one can reasonably get to you, so screaming for help is of no use. If you are afraid of “creepy, crawly things” or other denizens of the dark, the terror is only amplified. There is no diurnal cycle, so you lose track of time as the hours and days drag on. You depend on whatever food you happened to have on you. The one positive of this dire situation: You have water, but far more than you care for.

Details are emerging now that the rescue is complete. We don’t know the full story yet, but what we do know is that when the first of the divers successfully reached the cave chamber, the boys and their coach hadn’t seen sunlight for more than 200 hours. They had suffered more than nine days in darkness, six of them without food. We will certainly find out more as the young survivors and their coach begin to share their personal stories.

Those children and their coach accidentally got themselves in trouble, but I am simply amazed at how they kept their composure and managed to survive 18 days against the most impossible odds. Most importantly, I am amazed they had the self-control to carry out an evacuation that even seasoned experts expressed reluctance to undertake. They were extraordinarily courageous, and their coach, a former Buddhist monk, was extraordinarily capable to instill the optimism, discipline, and composure that ultimately allowed them to survive.

Then there were the heroes, the individuals who planned and executed an almost inconceivable rescue. They came from around the world and selflessly risked their own lives (one rescuer even tragically perishing in the process) to save unrelated, unknown children. Why? Why do some events touch the soul of many and elicit the very best of human nature while others do not? Is it the age of the victims? Or, the unpredictability and lack of control of the situation? Is it the hype of emotions created by the media coverage?

I am sure someone has studied this social phenomenon, the deep human drive to come together to help complete strangers. It may not make logical sense, but in a crisis, heroes will always be found coming together, for whatever reason, to make things better. Whatever the reason, it is encouraging to know that there are many good people around the world, ready to risk it all to help those in need.

The challenge for our society is how to extend that empathy to the many in this country and around the world who suffer daily from poverty, persecution, abuse, and fear. When the crisis is one of everyday human suffering, and not a well-publicized natural disaster, how do we keep that spirit alive? How do we extend our heroism and empathy to help and support these people, also in trouble, as they seek a better situation for themselves and their families?

I am proud of the many projects and initiatives going on around campus through academic, research, and co-curricular activities that have our faculty, staff, and students responding and giving of their time and talents to help those in crisis. Like the experts and volunteers who came from more than 20 different countries to assist in Thailand, our Georgia Tech community is making an impact on so many other communities around the globe, offering technical expertise, sweat, and commitment to help strangers.

Be it a project that brings solar power to a health clinic in a remote village in Haiti, a service project that builds a school for girls in Senegal, or local programs that support the educational needs of some of most vulnerable school-age children in the city of Atlanta, our Georgia Tech community is making a difference.

May we continue to answer the call.

- Rafael L. Bras

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