Cancer Warrior

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Heather Von St. James first met her husband Cameron via the internet in 1998. “I had moved to the Twin Cities on bit of a whim, and didn’t know anyone, so I went online looking to just meet people from the area, no romantic inclinations whatsoever, but then we met,” said James. They were married ten months later.

Early in the marriage, James learned that she had mesothelioma, a rare form of cancer. “We immediately knew we needed to fight, and a quiet determination took over quite fast,” said James. They immediately got on the path to fight mesothelioma together and never second guessed their choice.

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Heather with her daughter, Lily.

James went to Boston to receive treatment. She was often away for long periods of time from her husband and young daughter Lily. To cope with her predicament, James would sleep with a baby blanket of Lily’s. She said God, Lily, and Cameron helped keep her going. “God is my reason for hope,” said James, “He brought me through this and I do what I do because of Him.” James was able to beat mesothelioma.

James talks about how she has her good and bad days. In February, her father passed away and healing from his death has been tough for her. “I think I’ve cried more in the last 2 months than I have in the last 8 years,” says James.

James still won’t give up though. “I am taking a lot of what I learned through my battle, and am using it to get through this part of the journey, too,” says James.

Today James strives to bring awareness to the world of what mesothelioma is. She also strives to make a difference in the lives of all those she comes in contact with. “I’m there for people when they need me, and am trying my best to help out the meso community,” says James.

James is involved with the Mesothelioma Foundation. She has met many other mesothelioma survivors along the way. “They inspire me,” says James.

James has also been getting involved with other survivor communities, including Stupid Cancer, which is geared toward young adult cancer survivors.

James says that if she didn’t have God to lean on during her battle with mesothelioma she doesn’t know where she’d be today. When asked what the greatest lesson was that she gained from her experiences she said, “I’m stronger than I ever dreamed I was but my strength isn’t my own.”

We may feel weak at times like Heather did but one cannot underestimate the power of the human spirit. You may be facing similar challenges like Heather or trying circumstances. Do not doubt yourself. Rely on God and those you love. Together, they will help you achieve your true potential in life and reach heights you never dreamed possible.

To find out how you can help, or learn more about Heather’s journey, check out her blog page at:

http://www.mesothelioma.com/heather/#.U4FFMsKTfIU

 
 

Not Holding Back

“I have to keep going. I have too many fun things that I want to do!”

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Meet Elsha Stockseth. At eleven months, it was discovered that she had muscular dystrophy, when she couldn’t sit up anymore like the other kids her age. “Honestly I didn’t really react because I didn’t know anything else,” said Elsha.

One day as a child, Elsha began to cry and told her Mom she was sad because she wasn’t like the other kids. Her Mom thought, “Oh great, we are going to have that talk.” Her Mom asked, “What makes you feel different?” Elsha told her Mom, “I can’t blow a bubble with my gum like the other kids.” So her Mom taught her.

“Sometimes there were things that I didn’t want to do but my Mom wouldn’t let me just not do them,especially if there was a way I could,” said Elsha. Thus, began her journey to do the impossible, despite being diagnosed with muscular dystrophy.

Elsha’s accomplishments include:

  • Square dancing. Elsha decided to give it a try after some encouragement from her Mom and enjoyed it–especially when she got to drive in circles in her electric wheel chair.
  • Snow tubing
  • River floating

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  • Going on a waterslide
  • Racing in 5 and 10K races

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  • Participating in art shows

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  • Attending multiple high school dances

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  • Starting her own holiday card business to help fund the African Well Fund. “I could relate to the African children since I couldn’t eat well and they are starving, yet always happy,” said Elsha. Last year, she was able to sell over 2,000 of her holiday cards.

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  • Meeting two real-life astronauts, including one who was on the space shuttle Columbia, when it exploded on reentry.

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  • Touring the Kennedy Space Center and going to the launch pad while the space shuttle was on it.
  • Maintaining a GPA of 4.0. “I always studied and had great teachers,” said Elsha, “I guess I just worked really hard for the 4.0 and didn’t give up.”
  • Meeting her favorite band, U2.

And Elsha doesn’t intend to have her list end. “My mom says that I make her tired because I am always planning or doing ten different things,” she says.

Ask yourself:

1.       What dreams do I have?

2.       What stands in my way of accomplishing them?

3.       How can I overcome those obstacles to achieve them?

If Elsha continues to fulfill her dreams, so can you!

Follow Elsha’s blog at: http://eartbyelsha.com/

My Cousin, Anne Frank

An anonymous author said, “Dreams are like stars…you may never touch them, but if you follow them they will lead you to your destiny.”

A month ago, I talked with a close friend of mine from BYU-I. We were talking about big choices we were making with education and work as we neared graduating from college. We were also talking about the uncertainty of the future and deciding where to go in life. Decisions like that can be frightening, as all of you know. A destiny starts with a dream. Each of us has a specific role to play in this life and it’s up to us to choose how our destiny begins.

This summer I had the opportunity to correspond with Anne Frank’s only surviving cousin, Buddy Elias, and learned how the simplest of people can change the world. Anne Frank is well known around the world for the diary she wrote while hiding in Amsterdam from 1942-1944 before being discovered by the Nazis. Anne Frank was only fifteen when she died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp with her older sister, Margot, from typhoid.

Anne Frank was four years older than Buddy, who she playfully referred to as “Bernd.” Despite their age difference, Anne and Buddy were the best of friends because they were both adventurous. “When we played together she always had ideas on what to play or do,” said Buddy. “She loved to dress up and imitate actors. She also loved my puppet theatre. Also hide and seek.” A vivid memory Buddy has of his cousin is when she dared him to put on one of his Mom’s dresses, hat, and high heel shoes, then imitate his Mom.

Buddy’s father became a representative of a German firm in Switzerland and moved there in 1929. He was joined by the rest of his family in 1931. This move most assuredly saved their lives during the Holocaust. When the persecution of the Jews begin after Hitler’s ascension to power in 1933, Buddy’s father helped Anne Frank’s Dad, Otto, secure a job in Holland, helping the Franks escape persecution for a time.

The last time Buddy saw Anne was either in 1938 or 1939, just before World War II broke out. They vacationed at a villa in the Swiss Alps, being spoiled by the wealthy owner.

When World War II broke out, Buddy’s family was naturally afraid for the Franks. The last they heard from them in writing was on a postcard that was sent from Amsterdam in July of 1942 just hours before they went into hiding. The two families had corresponded via letters but it was implied in this postcard that the flow of letters would stop for a time.

The years went slowly by anxiously for Buddy and his family in Basel, Switzerland. They lived in constant fear of the Germans invading Switzerland. Their home was located just fifteen minutes from the German border. Despite being in Switzerland, Buddy also faced anti-semitism in school. A teacher in his school called him, “a dirty little Jew.” When World War II drew to a close, Buddy watched, from behind a tree, U.S. tanks move across the French border into Germany.

Buddy and his family soon heard from Otto Frank on the phone from Amsterdam. They learned that everyone in the Frank family had perished in the Holocaust. “It was a terribly sad day,” said Buddy.

One of Anne Frank’s dreams was to one day have writings of hers published. Otto Frank was initially hesitant to publish his deceased daughter’s diary but eventually did in Holland in the summer of 1947. Today Anne Frank’s diary is one of the most read books in the world.

Buddy still remembers when he read his cousin’s diary for the first time and cried when his name was mentioned in it. When I asked him how he felt when reading about himself in her diary, Buddy said, “Very, very happy and grateful.”

Buddy, like his cousin, has followed his dreams and helped change the world. In his lifetime, Buddy has been an ice skater, comedian, singer, and actor. Now he strives to keep the memory of Anne alive by giving lectures at various establishments and running Anne Frank Fonds, an organization based in Switzerland honoring her memory. “I live with Anne’s inheritance every day,” said Buddy.

Each of us has a part to play in this world. Anne Frank most likely didn’t see herself becoming a best-selling author one day. Anne was no wonder child—just a lively, intelligent girl who inherited the writing talent of the Frank family. Anne Frank was just a normal girl growing up in Europe during one of the darkest times in the world. She may have not seen herself as someone that could change the world through her writing, yet she did.

You may feel unknown in the world like Anne Frank did when hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, but you have the possibility to change the whole world through your actions. Never doubt your potential in life. Follow your dreams! Realize your destiny in life like Anne did and prepare to change the hearts of millions like she did in her short life.

To learn more about Buddy and Anne please check out these links:

BBC Interview: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-18549657

PR.com Interview: http://www.pr.com/article/1099

A book that details more about the relationship Buddy had with the Franks: http://www.amazon.com/Treasures-Attic-Extraordinary-Franks-Family/dp/038553339X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1376878408&sr=8-1&keywords=buddy+elias

The main webpage of Anne Frank Fonds, run by Buddy Elias: http://www.annefrank.ch/

A Family’s Legacy

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Every picture represents a story.

During our visit, Stephen took me into a small room in his home filled with family pictures. In the middle of the room was a beautiful painting that Stephen Nasser had painted of his parents and older brother from a photograph taken before the war.

I asked Stephen, “How were you able to save all of these family photographs?”

“Not all of my family was killed during the Holocaust,” he said. “Some of them were saved by a Swedish diplomat named Raoul Wallenberg. They were able to hang onto some of our family photographs.”

Raoul Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat that came to Budapest, Hungary, and helped save the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. To learn about him, please click here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Raul_Wallenberg

Stephen Nasser next showed me his living room. He pointed out a statue of Joseph Smith, the founder of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, with his brother Hyrum Smith behind him. The two of them were close and were brutally killed by a mob in Carthage Jail on June 27, 1844.

Pointing the statue out to me Stephen said, “A member from your church in Salt Lake City gave this to me. They told me, ‘I know you were close with your brother Andris before he died. You may not share our beliefs but I thought you’d appreciate this statue because I am sure you can relate to the brotherly bond the Smiths shared.’ That’s why I keep it; because it reminds me of the bond I felt and still feel with my brother.”

Through the living room window, Stephen pointed out his backyard, filled with many statues, plants, and trees. He pointed out a statue to me in the middle. It was of two young boys playing. One of the boys was climbing up a ladder while the other was holding it to make sure the other didn’t fall.

“That statue is significant to me,” said Stephen, “there’s not a day goes by where I don’t think of my brother. I like to think that statue is of me helping my older brother Andris go peacefully to heaven when he died in my arms in Muhldorf.”

I learned that Stephen hadn’t published his diary for one reason—his uncle. In 1943, his Jewish uncle was drafted into the Hungarian Army to fight on the Russian Front. Because of that, his uncle was not with Stephen and the rest of his family when they were sent to Auschwitz. His uncle survived the war and was reunited with Stephen in 1945. He asked Stephen if he knew the fate of his wife, Bozsi, and baby son, Peter.

“Unfortunately, I was an eyewitness to their murder just a few feet away,” said Stephen, “so, I looked at him and lied.”

It wasn’t until after 1996, when his uncle passed away, that Stephen published his diary and the story of what really happened to his uncle’s family in Auschwitz. Today, Stephen travels the world delivering motivational speeches to many audiences and is in the process of making his book My Brother’s Voice into a play. He focuses specifically on family unity and love.

Nasser tells audience members, ““Do you know how much I would give from my life to be able to hug my brother, my parents, or do an errand for them? I would give half my life but I can’t. But all of you still have this opportunity.”

Lastly, he encourages listeners to often express love to their families and to give them two hugs instead of one.

“And if they ask, ‘What’s the second hug for?’ You can tell them, ‘It’s for Mr. Nasser because he cannot hug his family.’”

Talking with Stephen for two hours changed my life. I learned to be more optimistic during trials, to look for the good in dark times, and to appreciate my family even more than before. Your family needs your love, especially in these dark times. Don’t let anything sever your relationship with them. Let them know you love them as you’ll never know when they will be gone.

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To learn more about Stephen Nasser, I would highly encourage you to read his book My Brother’s Voice. I just finished reading the entire book in one weekend and was astounded with all the miracles that Stephen saw. I’ve only shared a tiny portion of Stephen’s incredible story. Read his book and get to know him. This is a man worth knowing! Also check out his blog at: http://mybrothersvoice.com/category/stephen-nasser/

Miracles In Mühldorf

A few days after they were unloaded from a crowded cattle car in Auschwitz, Stephen and his brother, Andris, cleverly switched places into a departing transport of prisoners that were being shipped to Mühldorf, a concentration camp in Bavaria. Despite physical abuse and exhausting work assignments, Stephen and his brother survived day by day, losing weight and strength rapidly. But they were determined to live, and brotherly love kept them going.

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Stephen (on right) and older brother Andris fishing at Lake Balaton in Hungary before the war. 

In Mühldorf, Stephen took up the hobby of wood carving in his spare time in the concentration camp. He hoped that the carvings could earn him and his older brother some food to keep them alive. His first customer was a German soldier, known simply as “Herr Hoffman”, who was guarding them on a work detail. Stephen’s first sculpture was that of a horse’s head and he showed it to Herr Hoffman. Herr Hoffman exclaimed, “Son, that’s beautiful! Where did you find it?”

Stephen responded proudly, “I carved it, sir.”

“You did?!” exclaimed Herr Hoffman, “you think I could have this?” Stephen gave the horse carving to Herr Hoffman. Herr Hoffman pondered for a second and then said, “Can you carve some more?” Stephen responded that he could. The soldier asked, “What would you like for it?”

Stephen said, “Well, if you could give me some extra food for my brother and I that I can share, and a couple of pencils.”  Herr Hoffman looked at him stunned and said, “What do you need pencils for? You’re in a concentration camp! Not in school!”

But Stephen replied quickly, “Sir, the same way as I love to carve I also love to draw.

Herr Hoffman exclaimed “Oh you are a little artist” and he gave Stephen two pencils. Stephen took the papers he had made from the cement paper bags in the barracks and shaped them in to a diary with crude wires. After work back at the barracks, he started to draw, and cleverly wrote his diary hidden under his drawings. Herr Hoffman continued to trade all of Stephen’s sculptures for food. But Stephen’s luck ran out when a SS officer stepped on his hand with studded boots which ended his carving days.

As the Allies came closer, Andris died in Stephens arms. The SS soldiers in the camp fled from the advancing Allies and left the remaining Wermacht (German Army) soldiers in command. Their order was to put the prisoners in cattle cars and transport them to the Bavarian Alps for execution. “They did not want to take us to Bavaria to execute us,” said Nasser, “apparently they didn’t want any more blood on their hands. They were hoping that the Americans or Allied forces would capture us.” General Patton’s Third Army liberated the train as it approached the Alps. Sixty-four inmates died in Stephen’s cattle car alone, before the liberation. The moving photo was taken just after the train was liberated. As I sat in Stephen’s home, he pointed out his teenage self in 1945, convinced he is the one in the photo, who was discovered unconscious and woke up in a hospital in Seeshaupt after his liberation.

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These two stories are just a sample of Stephen’s miraculous life. Before I left Stephen’s home in North Las Vegas, I purchased his book. As I’ve started to read it I can see why Stephen considers his life a gift from God. His life has been filled with many miracles and angelic figures in his life who have helped keep him going. I look forward to finishing his inspiring book, titled, “My Brother’s Voice”, which can be purchased through clicking on this link to Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/My-Brothers-Voice-Hungarian Holocaust/dp/1932173099/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1374351241&sr=8-1&keywords=my+brothers+voice

Miracles and charitable figures are possible to find in our society, no matter how dark the period. Consider your life a gift from God and look for the small miracles and people in your life that help keep you going. Realize that it’s in the most challenging of times that we see the greatest miracles in our lives, like Stephen Nasser did during the Holocaust.

Surviving Auschwitz

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“I had to keep on fighting. As long as God is on my side, nobody can penetrate me.”

Everyone needs to meet Stephen Nasser and hear his inspiring story of how he survived not just one, but two death camps during the dark years of the Holocaust.

Stephen was in Budapest, Hungary, when his country capitulated to Nazi Germany rule in 1943. Hungary had several hundred thousand Jews killed under Nazi rule. A majority of them met their end in Auschwitz. Stephen was one of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews that were deported to Auschwitz with his immediate and extended family in 1944 after being arrested at his home.

Stephen and his older brother, Andris, arrived in Auschwitz after a long journey in a box-car train. At Auschwitz they met their Mother, Aunt Bozsi, and their baby cousin, Peter. As they were lined up to be counted, Aunt Bozsi was nervous that she would be separated from her baby son. Stephen, Andris, and their mom encouraged Aunt Bozsi to pretend to breastfeed Peter, who was a little over a year old. They thought, “Even the Nazis wouldn’t separate a breastfeeding mother from her baby.” When it was their turn to be counted, Aunt Bozsi pretended to be breastfeeding Peter. An SS soldier came over and wrenched Peter away from Aunt Bozsi. Peter began to scream and Aunt Bozsi fought to hang on to her son. But the SS soldier was stronger and took Peter away. Another SS soldier grabbed Aunt Bozsi. Horrified, she watched her screaming baby being carried away. She struggled and broke free from the SS soldier and ran after the soldier carrying the baby on his shoulder. Sensing confusion behind him, the SS soldier with the baby turned around and came face to face with Aunt Bozsi. She clawed his face with her finger nails tearing in to his face.  The other soldier who had held onto Aunt Bozsi whacked her in the head with the butt of his gun. She crumpled into a heap and whimpered, “Please, let my baby go.” The baby was murdered just seconds afterward in a terrible manner. This happened only feet away from Stephen, who was only thirteen at the time, and he still remembers it vividly to this day, almost seventy years later.

“The Nazis controlled me physically,” said Nasser, “I could not do anything about it. But they did not control my mind.”

Stephen considered himself a “part-time prisoner.” As he laid down to sleep, he thought of memories with his parents, Andris, good times, and the Boy Scouts. His dreams were his escape to freedom. When he awoke, he considered it a terrible nightmare he had to face, until he was free again in his dreams.

Stephen spent the war in two concentration camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau and Mühldorf. In the camps, he went through much physical and emotional abuse by the Nazi guards. He also held his older brother Andris in his arms as he died. This is an experience that he still vividly remembers and thinks about daily. When the war ended, Stephen weighed seventy–two pounds and was the sole survivor of his family out of the twenty-one family members that were arrested in 1944. Stephen was the only one to return to Budapest in 1945. But that was not the end of his trials. Stephen and his wife were visiting their daughter when she collapsed to the ground, suffered a brain aneurysm, and passed away.

Anyone who meets Stephen Nasser can instantly feel of his warm, cheerful, and optimistic spirit. When I asked Stephen what his number one motto in life was, he said, “Most people have problems. I consider them challenges. If I have a challenge, I figure out how to beat it.” Stephen considers his life a gift from God.

As I left his home in North Las Vegas on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I told Stephen, “I am sorry about all the things you have had to go through.”

“Don’t be,” beamed Stephen Nasser, “I am still happy. Those challenges made me become stronger. I have a wonderful life.”

As I drove back home, I couldn’t help but cry because I was so amazed at how a man who had passed through such experiences could be so happy, loving, and still believe in God. I have met many who go through smaller challenges and lose their faith in God.

I believe everyone should meet Stephen Nasser. He is truly one of the most extraordinary men I have ever met and I hope to become like him one day. I stayed at his home for two hours learning just a small fraction of his extraordinary life. The next few weeks, I’ll be posting on my blog more lessons I learned from my visit with him.

Stephen Nasser said, “I am not God-fearing. How can I fear my best friend?”

Truly, if we consider God our best friend, our lives cannot be destroyed. If faith in God can help someone survive the Holocaust, think of what this type of faith can do for you as you pass through challenges.

Forgiving A Killer

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Jesus Christ taught in his Sermon on the Mount, “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them who despitefully use you and persecute you.” Developing love for your enemies is no easy task. It is hard to forgive, yet alone love someone that has deeply hurt you. Recently, I met an amazing Bangladeshi man, named Rais Bhuiyan, who shared with me the most incredible story about forgiveness that I have ever heard in my life.

 

Growing up, Bhuiyan had two dreams: to become a pilot and go to the United States to receive a world class education. Bhuiyan joined the Bangladesh Air Force where he served for three years. He saw that he could easily make a living in the Air Force after graduating as a pilot. “Then I started thinking, ‘Well, one dream came true and if I stay in the Air Force for the rest of my life the other dream will never come true’,” said Bhuiyan. It was after his graduation that Bhuiyan applied for his release from the Air Force so he could pursue his second dream.

 

He was given his release and Bhuiyan lived in New York City for three years before he moved to Dallas, Texas, for a job opportunity at a local gas station with a friend.

 

“I was very excited,” said Bhuiyan, “to finally come to Texas and see cowboys and horse ranches. I was hoping to see some of those swinging doors like you see in the Western movies.”

 

Bhuiyan helped reopen a gas station that was not located in the best part of Dallas. Bhuiyan and his partner set up shop and worked an average of twelve to thirteen hours daily at the gas station.

Then September 11, 2001 happened.

 

“I thought I was seeing some sort of a Hollywood movie,” said Bhuiyan, “I was shocked at how people could do this heinous crime against a peaceful city.“

 

Bhuiyan was a devout Muslim and was terrified that unrest would begin to rise against the Muslim population because of the 9/11 attacks. “I told myself, ‘I had nothing to do with 9/11,” said Bhuiyan, “I am a peaceful person. What should I be scared of?”

 

Occasionally, customers would enter the gas station, angry against Muslims. Bhuiyan did his best not to start any conflicts and kept quiet while customers ranted.

 

September 21st, 2001 rolled around. It was a Friday around 12:30pm. Bhuiyan saw a customer wearing a bandana, sunglasses, and a baseball cap stroll in. Bhuiyan noticed a double barreled shot gun was on the customer’s waist. Bhuiyan thought he was about to be robbed like he had in the past. Bhuiyan immediately opened the cash register and said to the customer, “Sir, here is all the money. Please, don’t shoot me.” Bhuiyan stepped away from the cash register in hopes that this particular customer wouldn’t feel intimidated. Bhuiyan noticed that the customer wasn’t looking at the money but directly at him. He felt a cold chill go down his spine and realized the customer wasn’t there for money. The customer grabbed the shotgun and shot Bhuiyan in the head. “I felt a sensation of a million bees stinging my face and then I heard an explosion,” said Bhuiyan. Bhuiyan wasn’t sure at first if he had been shot but soon saw that blood on the floor and that he was bleeding like an “open faucet”, as he described it, and instantly put both of his hands onto his head to stop the bleeding. He looked up and saw the gunman, the customer, towering above him. Bhuiyan started screaming for help and the gunman took off.

 

Bhuiyan was raised in Bangladesh and remembered the example of his mom, how she always forgave, no matter what. He also looked up to his grandparents and how they were kind to all. His mom taught him a critical lesson. “If anyone hurts you,” she said, “the first thing you do is put a zipper in your mouth and take time. Forgive them and move on.”

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As Bhuiyan was being driven to the hospital, he was crying. He prayed for mercy and for God to give him a second chance. Bhuiyan began to recover and decided not to keep the anger in his heart from the attack. He wanted to move on peacefully. “Once I got my life back,” said Bhuiyan, “I forgave my attacker right away.” Bhuiyan credits his ability to forgive so quickly because of the examples he saw in his own family back in Bangladesh and also from his own Muslim faith.

 

The attacker was identified as Mark Stroman, a white supremacist who called himself the “Arab Slayer.” Stroman was seeking revenge on anyone that appeared to be from the Middle East. In his conquest, he had killed two other South Asian gas station workers and severely wounded Bhuiyan, who lost the sight in one of his eyes.

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“Forgiveness was not enough,” said Bhuiyan. Stroman was put on death row and was due to be executed by lethal injection. But besides forgiving Stroman, Bhuiyan did even more. He started a campaign to stop Stroman from being executed.

 

Despite Bhuiyan’s efforts, Stroman execution date was set. There was no way of reversing it.

 

Hours before his execution, Bhuiyan decided to call Stroman in his jail cell. At first he wanted to see Stroman face to face but that wasn’t allowed. He told the criminal and justice department, “I need to see my offender before you kill him.” He was denied several times. He decided to call the actual jail where Stroman was held determined and not ready to give up. He knew that Stroman was to be executed and wanted to have the chance to talk to him. After some searching, he got in contact with one of Stroman’s friends. The friend hooked Bhuiyan up and got him on a final conference call that Stroman was having with his friends before his execution. Bhuiyan soon found himself on speaker phone with Stroman. The conversation was short and sweet.

 

“Mark, I forgave you,” said Bhuiyan, “and I never hated you.” Stroman thanked Bhuiyan for his efforts in trying to stop his impending execution. Stroman told Bhuiyan, “I love you, bro.” Stroman’s hate of the Muslim faith had been changed because one of his victims had sought to save his life. His last words as he was strapped down in preparation to receive lethal injection were, “Hate is going on in this world and it has to stop.”

 

It is really quite something to talk with Rais Bhuiyan. I was astounded that he started getting emotional with as he talked about Mark Stroman. Truly, to develop love towards someone that tried to kill you is extraordinary. Very few people on earth have been able to perform such an act. Take Rais Bhuiyan’s story into your heart. If an individual can forgive someone who shot them, surely you can forgive and even try to love those who hurt you. Don’t let anger flow into your heart and destroy your life. Forgive like Rais Bhuiyan did and become the person that God wants you to become in this life. 

To Syria With Love

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Gandhi said, “Whenever you are confronted with an opponent. Conquer him with love.” A war that many have not heard of is raging in Syria between the Syrian Ba’ath Party and those seeking to overthrow it. The civil war has killed tens of thousands and there appears to be no end in sight. One man, a photographer and author, sought to understand what exactly is going on in Syria. His name is Russell Chapman.

 

Chapman wanted to find out what was really happening in Syria and to tell the world what he saw. He spent one month in Syria along with four weeks in refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon. His journey took him to the frontlines of this civil war alongside revolutionary soldiers to the destitute in refugee camps. Several times, Chapman has nearly been shot and blown apart in this journey. Yet despite the life threatening risks he was faced with, Chapman went to Syria determined. There he encountered individuals that changed his life right in the middle of a bloody war. “The people there are incredible,” said Chapman, “most are willing to share with you despite the circumstances they live in.”

 

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When I asked him about such individuals, Chapman instantly brought up the Syrian women and children that he came across in the refugee camps. Most of the Syrian children had been exposed to the horrors of war and were traumatized. Yet despite the exposure, most choose to still laugh and play. They aren’t letting a war ruin their childhood. The photo above captures the resilience of such children in a refugee camp in Bab Al Salam, Syria. Chapman described the women as tough and afraid of nothing. They are continuing to press on in their lives and like the children aren’t letting a war stop them from leading normal lives.

 

Even rebel soldiers of the Free Syrian Army are still smiling despite being on the frontlines. Chapman went to Aleppo which is the largest city in Syria and currently the frontline of the war. Just from watching the video below, it is amazing to see soldiers on the frontline still smiling and even goofing off for the camera knowing that they face death where they stand.

 

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_VVzq6W_Vr0

 

If you would like to learn more about the present conditions in Syria check out Chapman’s blog at: http://documentingsyria.wordpress.com/ and also be on the lookout for his upcoming book on Syria as well.   

 

There are three lessons we can learn from Russell Chapman.

 

One, don’t be afraid of pursuing your dreams. Chapman went to perhaps one of the most dangerous countries on earth to learn what was happening there. He sought to understand a people some of us may not want to understand. “The people that I met in Syria despite not being Christian,” said Chapman, “are more ‘Christian’ than most people that I have met outside of that country.”

 

Second, it is never impossible to smile. If these people can continue to have a zest for life, surely we can as well!

 

The final lesson is we all must pray for the conflict in Syria to cease and that all Syrians can enjoy the freedoms we enjoy. I am sad to admit that I knew nothing of this war till I talked with Chapman this week. It’s bigger than we think. It is absolutely horrible what is being done to the people over there by the current government. In my family, we always pray for those fighting for freedom around the world. I would encourage you to do the same especially for those in Syria. Be grateful for the wonderful life you have no matter how tough it can be at times. Pray that those who are fighting for such a blessed life can have it in their lifetime. 

 

Just Go Do It!

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“I personally feel that as a society we have lost many basic moral ideas. Many people don’t want to help each other out. Don’t wait to be asked. Go do it! It’s the natural thing to do.”

Moss Hills truly practices what he preaches. On August 4, 1991, Hills was able to show that when his ship, the MTS Oceanos, began to sink after an external valve called the “sea chest” failed and allowed water to flow into the main water tanks in the bows, which crippled the Greek ship off the coast of South Africa in stormy seas.

I was able to speak with him via Skype in England about his experience:

Moss and his wife Tracy were guitarists at the time. Moss was performing with his wife in the ship’s show lounge when the power went out. Seeing the passengers nervous, Moss tried to distract them from what was happening through more songs and comedy. After thirty minutes, passengers were repeatedly asking what was wrong so Moss decided to investigate with a fellow magician entertainer on board. They asked the captain of the ship, Captain Yiannis Avranas, if the ship was sinking. Captain Avranas replied, “No,” but Moss didn’t trust him.

Moss and the fellow entertainer went down a stairway that led into the bowels of the ship and what they found was pandemonium. Crew members were hurriedly packing their belongings and yelling in many different languages. They even found the engine room completely abandoned. Moving to the next deck, Moss heard the rush of water. Looking down the stairway, he was horrified to find the deck below him completely underwater. It was then that Moss knew the Oceanos was sinking.

Moss quickly discovered a horrifying fact when he arrived at the lifeboat deck and watched officers and crew members pile into the lifeboats, leaving hundreds of passengers to their watery fate. No public announcement had been made that the ship was sinking. None of the officers, or even the captain were helping to make sure all the passengers got off. It was literally every man for himself.

Born in Zimbabwe, Moss said that growing up he had to learn to do things on his own and to be the first one to act. Moss decided to help get all 571 Oceanos passengers off the sinking ship and to coordinate their rescue. Moss, with his fellow entertainers, began to help passengers off the ship into the lifeboats since the ship’s officers were not doing anything to help. With other entertainers, Moss was helping lower the lifeboats into the stormy sea below. “I had never lowered a lifeboat in my life,” said Moss. A few of the lifeboats were damaged while being lowered but he kept going. Eventually, the Oceanos had listed so far over on the starboard side that it was impossible to launch the remaining port side lifeboats but there were still 228 people on board the doomed ship.

Bolting to the ship’s bridge, Moss decided to see if there were rescue ships on the way. He figured the captain and officers of the Oceanos had already radioed for help. Moss quickly learned that that hadn’t happened. Moss tried in vain to get in contact with ships close by. He got in contact with several foreign ships that couldn’t speak a word of English. Laughing, Moss talked to me about how he got in contact with an Asian ship and how they started yelling at him in their native tongue, but they couldn’t understand each other so they gave up. Eventually he got in contact with a Dutch ship close by. The radioman in charge asked Moss what his rank was. Moss replied that he was a guitarist on the ship and the radioman asked, “What are you doing on the bridge?” “Well, there is no one here,” Moss responded. After coordinating on the radio, Moss learned that rescue helicopters would be there in a few more hours. It wasn’t an easy wait.

When the rescue helicopters did arrive, Moss helped two navy divers from the rescue helicopter on board the ship. They confided in him that from the air it looked like the Oceanos didn’t have much more time. They had to get everyone off pronto. The way to do that was to strap two people at a time in a harness and lift them up into the choppers. Moss was recruited to help strap people into the harness and make sure they made it safely. He said that he learned how to do this in five minutes from the navy divers. To help speed this effort, the divers then moved half of the remaining passengers to the rear deck, from where they would run the helicopter airlift, and left Moss to run the airlift of the other half from the fore-deck.  “I don’t want to bore you with this story,” said Moss, “but I injured a few people and even broke someone’s ankle. But I didn’t let that stop me and I kept going.” Miraculously, all of the passengers were lifted to safety before the Oceanos plunged below. The navy divers, Moss and his wife Tracy were the last ones off the sinking Oceanos.

As I had the privilege to interview Moss, I was amazed at the faith, perseverance, and humor that he used throughout his telling the story of the ship’s sinking. Moss didn’t see the Oceanos make its final plunge but has seen the video of its final plunge taken from a news helicopter flying over the scene. I asked Moss what he thinks as he watches this footage. He said, “I left my guitars on board when the ship sank. When I see the footage, I can see my cabin go underwater. I think, ‘Well, there go my guitars. Now, they’re all ruined.’ Then I rewind the footage and I say, ‘There, they are dry now.'” I found Moss to be extremely humble when talking about his part in the rescue. A lesson I learned from Moss is that one shouldn’t simply stand by and expect someone else to help someone in need. I saw an example of this here in Rexburg, Idaho. I was walking to class when at a busy crosswalk a fellow student’s car stopped working. I looked around. I was saddened to watch people walk right past and even a lady behind him start screaming at him. I thought of what Moss told me and ran into the middle of the crosswalk. I helped push this car out of the crosswalk and into a neighboring parking lot. I am thankful to Mr. Moss Hills for teaching me that one shouldn’t pass up those who suffer but instead help them out, even if it throws us off schedule. Moss told me he doesn’t feel like a hero for what he did on the Oceanos but thinks anyone could have done what he did. Remember as you go throughout your life, that you have the power to accomplish great feats and miracles. If a simple guitarist on a sinking ship can help save over five hundred passengers from a watery grave, think of all that you can do!

Here is footage of the Oceanos making its final plunge:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MjTuAV036yY

The following photos below were used with the permission of Moss Hills who took many pictures on the Oceanos during its sinking. You can’t see the pictures in the e-mail version of my blog but you can on my online version.

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Onboard the sinking Oceanos.

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Being airlifted off the sinking Oceanos.

If you’d like to learn more about the Oceanos and the heroes who helped save all the passengers, check out this link that Moss Hills created: http://www.oceanossinking.com/

Letting Your Past Change You For The Better

An unknown author said, “Life is like a mirror, we get the best results when we smile at it.” One of my good friends Samantha* (name has been changed) follows this quote to the T. When I was waiting with her at a hospital for an MRI appointment I remember how astounded I was at her optimistic attitude despite the fact she couldn’t move her leg. When she went to go get her MRI done, I told her, “Good luck. Don’t cause any trouble.” She smiled back at me and said, “I really hope I pass.” That joke made my day and inspired me. It’s really quite something to see someone like Samantha face an unpleasant task ahead with a smile and humor.

When you meet Samantha, you find her to be one of the sweetest and most optimistic girls you’ll ever come across. I had the opportunity to talk with Samantha about what life experiences led her to become who she is today.

Samantha comes from a rough family background. Samantha’s parents divorced when she was only twelve years old. Her Dad was kept busy as a local firefighter so he didn’t have custody over Samantha. One of the main reasons Samantha’s parents divorced was because her biological Mom was an alcoholic and a drug addict. Samantha’s Dad waited till Samantha was twelve to divorce her biological Mom so Samantha would be able to endure and understand what was happening. Samantha had no idea of her Mom’s outside behavior till she was thirteen when her Mom’s behavior became more prevalent. Her Mom would often come home under the influence occasionally bringing boyfriends. Surprisingly, Samantha’s Mom would drive her while under the influence. Her Mom was also emotionally abusive to Samantha. Samantha was told by her Mom frequently that she didn’t love her and hated her. She made Samantha come with her to “Narcotic Anonymous” meetings after Samantha’s Mom had her nursing license revoked from stealing drugs. Her Dad had Samantha keep a journal to remember all of the abuse so Samantha could testify accurately before a judge.

“I understand now that she wasn’t in her right mind because of the drugs and alcohol altered her so much,” said Samantha.

Samantha’s health was directly affected by her Mom’s actions. Samantha had to venture outside of her home to find food for herself at the grocery store. Her diet often consisted of ramen and pickles for dinner since that was the only food in her Mom’s house. Her Mom kept cats in the house despite the fact Samantha was allergic to them. Her Mom kept Samantha mostly because of the money she was getting from her biological Dad. Samantha described the relationship with her Mom as not loving, violent, painful, and not ideal. At times, Samantha feeling like there was no escape, contemplated taking her life than endure another day of emotional torture from her Mom. One time, Samantha was kicked out of the car by her Mom, had her cell phone taken away, and was worried her Mom was going to hurt her.

“I just sat there. I remember leaning up against the wall sliding down and I just remember saying, ‘I don’t know who is listening. I don’t know who is there. But I need help. I can’t do this on my own,’” said Samantha.

As members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we believe that God sends his spirit down to us by means of the Holy Ghost, a part of the Godhead, to bring us comfort and peace during times of trial. We also believe that through this we can achieve healing from horrific trials. Samantha talked about how she felt this peace during this humbling experience.

Thankfully, Samantha was able to get away from her biological Mom when her biological Dad got full custody of her and married a more loving woman.

“At that time I needed love from anyone. So he placed my stepmom into my life who is first and foremost my best friend. Heavenly Father let me be super lucky because He let me see how a Mother should love her daughter. He let me see that it’s okay to trust someone else and to call them ‘Mom’. You don’t have to be afraid every day. You really can put all your trust in someone conditionally,” said Samantha.

Samantha credits the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints with the peace, happiness, and healing it has brought her since becoming a member in 2009. She also credits a seminary teacher and church leaders who helped teach her the true meaning of forgiveness. Samantha called her biological Mom completely forgiving her and telling her Mom to not let the past stop her from reaching her full potential. Samantha described how she felt a great weight lift off her during that phone call and how that trial no longer was suffocating her. Since then, Samantha has never heard again from her biological Mom. Samantha plans on pursuing a psychology career at her university to help others that were in similar situations like her in her middle school years. “I can now help others overcome that same trial and let them know that they can be more than a victim of circumstance,” said Samantha.

What makes the Samantha the way she is today? She said simply, “When you allow Him (God) to work in your life when other people have wronged you that is a true miracle. I got my reward. I don’t have to be angry anymore.”

As Samantha said, you do not have to be a victim of circumstance. Each of us has memories we grimace at the thought of. Some of these memories even try to ruin our lives and stop us from reaching our true potential. It’s all up to us how we treat these memories. The road is not always easy but it is worth it. Are you going to be a victim of circumstance? Choose to follow the example of Samantha and show the world that your past will not ruin your life.