Italy, Zambia, Afghanistan, South Sudan, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Dubai, Switzerland, India, Sweden, Croatia, Spain, Australia, Niger, Central Africa Republic, U.S.A., UK, Thailand and Egypt are just a sampling of the many countries in which our 35-year-old son, Rashad, has found himself over the past decade. Like our parents, my spouse and I told our only child that he could be "anything" he wanted to be. When he graduated from one of the nation's top law schools, it was clear to Rashad and to us that he did not have an appetite for the practice of law. Not once did we remind him of all the money we had invested in his education. Rather, we encouraged him when he informed us of his plans to contact his mentor, the then-director of the UN World Food Program, to inquire about spending a year at the agency's world headquarters in Rome, Italy, to explore a career in international public service. Ten years later, Rashad has become a citizen of the world and is fully committed to doing his part to make the world a better place. Most importantly, he is comfortable with who he is and what he does and how small acts of kindness can relieve the suffering of millions.
Given the nature of Rashad's work, we are not unaccustomed to receiving a copy of his travel itinerary to some part of the world with which we are not familiar. When he joined WFP, we made a pact to always send each other a daily email or text to say simply, "How are you? Have a great day," or to share an inspirational quote. This has been our way of staying connected and saying, "I/we are safe." We always close with, "Love, Dad/Mom/Rashad." I can count with ease the number of times we have not followed this routine in our interactions as a family. Although Rashad is a full-grown man, as my mama would say, to us he will always be our child and we his parents. As an only child he knows that every sliver of unsolicited advice and every expression of concern is shared with love and that we are OK if he chooses not to abide by our suggestions.
On Monday, Oct. 27, in response to my "have-a-great-day" email, Rashad replied rather casually, "Thanks; I leave for Sierra Leone on Sunday." "Wow," I said to myself, "aren't Sierra Leone, Liberia and Guinea among the West African countries with high levels of Ebola infections and deaths?" Of course, my thoughts about what could happen to our son nearly overwhelmed me until I collected myself and thought a bit more rationally about the probability of any of those things occurring if appropriate protocols and basic sanitary conditions are followed. After all, Rashad is not a healthcare worker and is less likely to come in contact with infected persons. As an employee of the United Nations World Food Program and director of its Corporate Ambassadors Program, his role is to support the program's executive director in talks with Sierra Leone government officials to ensure that food supplies reach some of the nation's most vulnerable citizens. However, no matter how rationally you may wish to think about such a serious matter, it is still true that an estimated 5,000 citizens in Sierra Leone have been diagnosed with Ebola and more than 1,500 have died. Upon learning that Rashad volunteered for the assignment, I gained greater insight into the depths of his commitment to serve humankind.
As we prepared for Rashad's departure for Sierra Leone on Sunday, my wife and I abstained from watching television talk shows where the hosts interview a litany of so-called Ebola experts, many of whom are politicians seeking to advance their political campaign, or so it seems. In the past, when he left on trips to Islamabad, Zapata or South Sudan, for example, we worried about his physical well-being and prayed that he would not get in harm's way. This time, we are worried about an unseen enemy, a virus, whose impact is equally detrimental, if not more since where it lurks isn't as well-known as experts would like to think. Make no mistake about it: Worry and fear of the unknown is a normal tendency possessed by all human beings, perhaps to a higher degree by parents. Parental worry notwithstanding, I appreciate at a greater level today than I did last week the sacrifice that our son and millions of professionals around the world make every day to ensure that hungry people are fed, vulnerable populations are protected from war lords, sick people are cured of common and not-so-common illnesses. Some of these professionals work in the background while others are out front doing what most of us would be reluctant to even consider doing for fear of injury or even fatality.
Forty years after accepting an offer to direct a hydro-agriculture project in Niger, located in the drought stricken Sahel region, I have a greater appreciation for the emotions my spouse and parents must have experienced when I informed them of my decision to use my degree in agriculture to help people. A political coup during my very first visit to Niger forced postponement of the project. By the time the situation "stabilized," I had moved on to making a difference in new and safer ways.
Although the prospects of our son contracting Ebola are remote, his mother and I still worry about his health and safety. Yet we respect his desire to make the world a better place even if it means putting himself in harm's way. As a parent and lifelong educator, I must admit it gives me a sense of pride to know that at least one person listened to my lesson about the importance of doing well and good and that that person was my son! Rashad, as you go to Sierra Leone, please know that you have a network of supporters cheering you on!