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What Price the Life of One Child?

Most of us will fight fiercely for our kids. We have an instinctual need to make sure they are kept safe from harm.

In her year before middle school, my daughter was the victim of bullying. She was taunted and called a slut by a clique of ‘mean girls.’

When I visited her teacher, he said something to the effect of, “This is a normal thing for sixth grade girls. Your daughter needs to develop a thick skin.”

It did not set well with this mama bear. I demanded that my child’s teacher intervene and when he didn’t, I took it to the principal.

I would protect my child’s need for emotional safety.

Looking at today’s refugee crisis in Europe, at the boatloads of people who found it necessary to risk everything to escape the horrors of their homeland, I can’t help but think.

What if the emotional nurturing of my child had to take a second place to finding a way to sustain her life? What if her physical being, her life, was in grave danger?

I thought about this when I saw the heartbreaking image of the Syrian father holding the limp body of his four-year-old son, who reached the shores of Turkey but not before he drowned.

What kinds of impossible choices did that man have to make to try to save his family?

And what would I risk to save my child?


On one of my trips to West Africa, as a manager for an international humanitarian organization, I spent a night in Senegal, close to the border with Mauritania.

At the time, Mauritanian cattle herders and Senegalese farmers were clashing over rights to the water in the Senegal River, which divides the two countries.

This conflict would leave thousands dead, many more displaced and a refugee crisis as massive numbers people fled their homes on the Mauritanian side across the river to Senegal.

These were parents who felt as fiercely protective of their children as I do mine.

I slept in my compound that night with an armed guard stationed at the door, for precautionary measures, my boss said.

My lesson: sometimes wars—and refugee crises— happen over something as basic as water. And it is the children who suffer the most.

Parents make impossible choices to protect their children.


Some families are driven from their homes by war.

Years ago I worked with such kids as a bilingual teacher in a high-poverty elementary school in Washington state. Pao, a bright 10-year old boy, had emigrated from his home in the mountains of Laos, his family a casualty of choosing the wrong side in the Viet Nam War.

They had harbored—and fought alongside—American soldiers. Some of them had even worked for the CIA. Now, with the Communist regime, it was no longer safe to stay.

Many did not survive the journey to refugee camps in Thailand. Their fields and houses were burned, animals slaughtered, people chased down and killed.

The lucky ones made it through the jungle, traveling barefoot and, to avoid detection, in the dead of the night.

Often children had to be drugged so they wouldn’t cry, and some died of overdoses. The elderly, who couldn’t move quickly, chose to end their lives with massive doses of opium, to help their grown children have a chance to live.

All to arrive in an overcrowded refugee camp in Thailand, on a wait list for America.

This was the story of Pao’s people. These were the choices his parents had to make.

Pao picked things up quickly: math, geography, even English. At school he ate silently, guarding his food, looking up only occasionally as if he was confirming where he was. I could see the leftover trauma on his face, the uncertainty.

I learned not to extend my hand too quickly, when the first time I did it, he winced and cowered. I would never know what experiences he had been through.

At home, he fought with his father, I suspected because he thought Pao was becoming too Americanized. I gave him my home phone number because I knew his nights were tough.

He called me several times a week and, in halting English, talked about everything in the world, about life.

These children excelled in math and loved to work out complex problems, though most of my time was spent spoon-feeding them tender phrases:

“May I use the bathroom?” “The color of this pen is blue.”

Their artwork was breathtaking: vivid, color-splashed and full of emotion.

On a mission to educate the other students in the school, I made a “Tell Me About Laos” bulletin board in the hallway, where I hung their translated stories and paintings of family life—always against a backdrop of gorgeous “BAH-nah-nah trees.”

I would never pronounce “banana” the same way again.

I often wonder where Pao is today, what he is doing with his life.

And I marvel at the bravery of his parents, carting their babies off, not knowing whether they would even survive the trek and if they did, where they would all land.


I can’t stop thinking about that four-year-old Syrian boy. One child, whose suffering was broadcast to the world via social media.

What price do we put on the the life of one child? How do we even put a value on that?

Maybe we should ask his grieving father.

And I wonder.

How bad would things have to get before I made the choice to risk everything—my family, the children I cherish— to set off for the unknown, with the possibility that I’ll be turned away when I arrive—or my child will die?

What kind of courage would it take to uproot my child, separate him from his home, his friends, the only life he has ever known, to risk death – and survive – only to be dropped into a classroom 7,000 miles away from his beloved Laos, into a universe where he understands just two words: “no” and “Coca-Cola”?

I can only wonder.

What would I do?

By Judy Lee Dunn

Chief content specialist at BobWP.com. Loves telling a good story, watching old movies and feeding gourmet meals to stray cats.

Comments (8)
  1. Danny Brown September 7, 2015 at 9:38 am

    Hey there Judy,

    This is such a powerful post, with the kind questions no parent wants to ask, never mind answer.

    When I saw the images of little Aylan lying prone on that beach, it broke my heart. I have a daughter the same age, and some times she’ll sleep in her bed in the same position this little boy lay, in his final hours. And yet, as tragic as this was, and as powerful an image it was for the world to finally wake up to, it won’t be the last nor (probably) the most tragic.

    It’s a sad fact of life that it’s the children that make us notice things.
    Many of my friends and I (yourself included) have been talking about this crisis for months, if not years, and how the West is ignoring one of the biggest genocides since the days of Rwanda. For all intents and purposes, the governments of the West have given Bashar al-Assad free rein to massacre those that stand against him, or don’t fit into his plans for a perfect race. Sound familiar?

    Yet it took the lifeless body of a three year old boy for the media of the world to start shouting from the rooftops. Yes, some media has covered the Syrian crisis, but not anywhere to the degree they have following last week’s events. But will it make a difference? Will the West now intervene?
    On early evidence, no. And so the killing goes on.

    Which makes you wonder – when even a child’s life doesn’t instill change, what will? How many more parents will be faced with those heartbreaking decisions to put their child in even more danger, to escape the terror behind?

    I can’t imagine being in these shoes, nor would I ever want to. No-one should have to – we need to do more to ensure they never do.

    • Judy Lee Dunn September 7, 2015 at 1:05 pm

      Danny, the trouble I struggled with constantly in my communications/marketing department was “How do we put a face on this?” The stats: mind-numbing numbers with how many children are dying; better, an analogy Analogy: children who die from dirty water is like 90 buses of kindergarteners going off a cliff every day; better yet: the stories and photos of individual children.

      The key ingredient, which people either have or they don’t (but can it be taught? From my work with kids, I think it can) is empathy. If we can just put ourselves in these parents’ shoes for five minutes. My mother would exasperate me when I would complain about something a friend or classmate did and she would say, “Well, how do you think that other person felt about what happened?”

      It forced me to look at different perspectives. Her gentle teaching did me well—throughout my life. Perhaps we can raise a new generation with empathy and social skills to make this world a better place. I think we can.

  2. Mark-John Clifford September 7, 2015 at 1:39 pm

    Hi Judy,

    An unbelievable story that brought back so many memories of when I traveled as a kid to different countries. I have lived a glorious life compared to these children and I have to thank God for the world I was brought up in. I wonder how many people feel the same?

    I spent over 6 years volunteering overseas administering the Polio vaccine to children all around the world. As a polio survivor I felt it was my place in life to do this. I spent years in the United States speaking about polio, the vaccine and how we need to help children both here and abroad.

    The children here already have the disease and still don’t get the help they need. Polio isn’t a popular disease like Muscular Dystrophy or Multiple Sclerosis. No famous celebrities till recently came out for polio even though many celebrities have or had polio.

    The same goes for the children of war torn nations. Although I will say many celebrities are out there trying to get noticed, but until a child is found face down on a beach dead or seen blown apart by a land mine by a news organization, no one here cares.

    It’s the same for polio and a host of other diseases around the world.

    What will it take to get this changed? I have no idea, except that some of us need to keep moving forward and doing what we do.

    • Judy Lee Dunn September 7, 2015 at 3:34 pm

      Wow. I love blogging because I learn so much from people like you. A polio survivor? What incredible stories you must have to tell. I read yesterday that France has confirmed five new cases of polio. In Europe, in a developed country. We think we have eradicated a disease, at least in the first world, and here it rears its ugly head again. Parents must still be buying the messages of the anti-vaccine crowd.

      I am so impressed that you have been a volunteer for this cause.

      And your last question, what will it take? I think a great start is to keep telling our stories—to anyone who will listen. (I’d like to explore your site more. The little I saw as I was scanning looked interesting.) Thanks for sharing your thoughts here.

      • Mark-John Clifford September 7, 2015 at 4:48 pm

        Hi Judy,

        I was very upset about reading about those new cases of polio. All the work and everyone out there considers it almost gone and then this happens.

        There was also a man found in England who has a strain of rare genetic form of polio living in his feces for the past 28 years. He is 29 and received the liquid vaccine, but for some unknown reason the virus is still alive.

        So there is more to do and as you answered my last question we need to keep telling stories and getting them out there through blogs or speaking out.

        I should write more about my experience and most likely will on this new platform started by Danny since I really like it.

        I did write a great deal on my life with polio and what is going on in Africa on my blog which you might have seen.

        Thanks for sharing your story and checking my blog out.

  3. Joshua Wilner September 9, 2015 at 2:32 pm

    Hi Judy,

    My kids and I have had this discussion several times. Some of their best friends are Persian Jews whose families fled Iran after the Shah was deposed.

    We have spoken about what it must have been like for the parents and grandparents to give up all they knew to go somewhere else in the hope it would be better.

    The world is a mix of very warm and very cruel and sometimes all we have is plain old luck to thank for our lives.

    • Judy Lee Dunn September 9, 2015 at 7:27 pm

      How impressive that you are talking with your kids about such stuff. I think we need to keep telling these stories so future generations will know and remember. A good dad, you are.

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