Isabel grew up in Liberia around the time of the Civil War. Four of her siblings were killed during the war, one by an accident she never specifies, one by raging diarrhea–one of the leading causes of death in the majority world; there was a sister whose death I cannot remember, and another, most horribly, she describes as being butchered like an animal, chopped into pieces. The way she looks away when describing this tells me she saw this happen right in front of her.
I first met Isabel when I was working late in a military hospital here in the US. She was working as a janitor, and I thought I would give her some cookies. I wanted to reach out to her, and show her some kindness.
How absolutely silly–there is a verse in Hebrews that says that the lesser is blessed by the greater. We didn’t have much time to talk that night, but over the following evenings the scattered conversation she shared with a lonely family medicine resident became my comfort, my blessing, from this woman so much greater than I.
The janitors at CRDAMC in Fort Hood in the US are treated with no mercy. If they miss a day of work by accident, they can be instantly fired. The other two I came to know through Isabel both had health problems not effectively treated by their insurance; one young Liberian found herself up against a several hundred dollar charge for the flu that she could not pay, so she never got treatment for her back problems. Another woman was not given appropriately early evaluation for a mass in her spine, likely because it was too difficult to explain things through her thick language challenges; even though the correct standard of care is to ask for a translator, she was never once offered one in her visits to her military PCM.
Isabel never complained. And one day–perhaps over lunch, perhaps at the hospital–she told me about her orphanage.
Isabel and her husband used to go to the refugees camps to share what little food they had with the refugees. One day, very early in this process, Isabel noticed a little child running around who seemed lost. She asked for his parents, and the people said the child just didn’t have any. Isabel became concerned about the children with no parents, and as her eyes opened to more and more of them she determined in her heart to give them a place to live, and a family of some kind.
When she mentioned the idea to people in her church circles, they laughed. It was a running joke, she told me: “you have nothing, and here you want to take all these children?” I think, if you really think about it, you can’t blame them for thinking she was irresponsible. I’ve heard Christians in Puerto Rico say it was irresponsible for someone to want to donate a kidney to a stranger (“what if you need it for your family”), and I’ve heard Christians in the mainland US say it’s optional, not a duty, to take care of the poor. “You can do that if you want to,” but your money belongs to you first, they’ve said. There’s a prevailing desire for safety, a fear of taking risks. So we can’t quite judge the Liberian churches who, having nothing, laughed at this crazy woman who wanted to take in 75 lost children. Think about the logistics of feeding 75 children. Think about how you could possibly find a place for them all to stay. In your house? There isn’t room. How on earth can you feed all of them?
But Isabel is a woman of solutions instead of problems, and faith instead of fear. She began to go from church to church anyway, and gradually she did gather enough money to buy a small house. Finding the children was easy–she had 75 almost immediately.
But now, she had nothing to feed them. She went to the Peace Corps, and they gave her 200 bags of milk. But with nothing else to eat–no solids–she feared the children would simply develop diarrhea and die anyway.
An inspiration occurred to her–perhaps inspired by the widow in Scripture, who at Elijah’s behest sold olive oil to save her family. Isabel took 100 bags of the milk, and began to sell them.
And discovered they sold like gold. People would pay insane amounts for each bag. This wasn’t just enough to pay for solid food for the children, but for mattresses and clothes!
And that is how Isabel started her orphanage. In those days, during the war, the orphanage she managed to buy was about two hours from her house–and she would walk those two hours daily, hiding from gunfire. After the war, she would travel throughout Liberia to reunite the children with their parents. She managed to find the parents of over half of the children; the rest, by now, are in high school or older.
One day, she went into one village, and saw a grandmother, and some men with shovels, around a hole in the ground. “What happened here?” she asked.
The grandmother pointed to a tiny, wrapped up infant. The baby looked like a skeleton, with her lips fused together from hunger.
“She died last night,” the grandmother said.
Isabel had a sense–“no, this child isn’t dead,” she said definitively.
“Yes, she died last night! She stopped moving,” the buriers insisted.
“No, no,” Isabel took the tiny skeleton, and dribbled water into her mouth. The baby’s lips moved. “This baby isn’t dead; she is just hungry. Let me take this child.”
“If she’s not dead now, she’s just going to die on the road, and then you’ll throw her away. No, please, let us bury her right,” they insisted.
But Isabel won out in the end, promising to bury the child if it died.
The baby spent three months in the hospital. But today, she is 22 years old.
Isabel has a number of other stories like this. In the end, she established something that looked like it would last. For a year they had help from a peace corps worker, and at one point some US Marines from the embassy built solar panels for Isabel’s electricity. But when the Kargbos lost their primary US donor to support the orphanage, Isabel had to seriously evaluate their financial situation. While many of her biological children had moved to the US for a better life, she still had her son Moses back in Liberia, and her husband, to tend the orphanage. She thought she could go to the US, the land of plenty, and earn enough money to send back to the orphanage so that it would flourish.
And so after two decades in Liberia establishing the orphanage, she spent nine years trying to raise money for it in the US. She found, however, that the expenses and high cost of living in the US ate away the paltry funds she could gather with her education, and as the orphanage began to suffer without her presence, she decided to return to Liberia permanently.
It was around this time that I met her.
I remember when I was working one Thanksgiving–I had no family in Texas anyway–and Isabel had invited me to come to her Thanksgiving whenever I managed to get away. I was doing rounds on the newborn babies, enjoying the quiet of a fairly empty hospital with only essential staff, free from the annoying interference of the more controlling nurses and administrators (you know, the kind of person who knows better than you about your patient care even though they’ve never been to medical school, because they improve the numbers geared to make the hospital money; the person who controls everyone around them, and still somehow manages to get holidays off because “they deserve it”). Suddenly, whispers and warnings permeated through the hallways: the hospital commander was coming in.
“What is the hospital commander coming in for?” I admit I kind of smirked. People hate it when I smirk.
But the smirk was deserved. He was coming to get his picture taken while he gave out turkeys to the patients stuck in the hospital over Thanksgiving. He had a glorious entourage, all decked out in their blue Army dress uniforms, their chests studded with colorful war-candy. The vast majority of the awards in the modern Army have nothing to do with combat, or bravery–you can get one for just going on a deployment, or writing a good paper, and there’s even one for just existing in the Army during 9/11. You wouldn’t know that, with the chests stuck out, and the strutting: it’s not uncommon for a commander, at military balls, to insist that lower Captains take pictures with him so you can see by contrast how very many medals he has on his dress blues compared to everyone else.
I met the commander’s eyes for a moment as he passed by with his photographer; we all had to stop working on medicine to praise his presence. Decorum, and so forth.
“When you give to the poor, do not do as the hypocrites do, and bring your trumpeter to announce your good work in the city square,” my Messiah once said; the commanders of his time didn’t have photographers.
But his words are so much harder than we think, aren’t they? All of our giving programs online include social media buttons, so we can share how good we are with others. We call it “spreading awareness,” and I admit to feeling like if I tell everyone else I’m doing good, they’ll want to do good, too. And of course, we have to have some way to share good programs. But there must be a difference between a photograph of a well-dressed man of power handing out turkeys, and a practical call to action begging you to join the work.
As the commander continued down the hall, I could only think about Isabel, working in the lowest position in the hospital, compared to this man with all his power. “The first shall be last,” the Messiah once said. In heaven, she will be the one studded with awards, and hers will not be pompous, but glorious.
Thanksgiving with Isabel’s family was shy, but good. Those were the good days, even though I didn’t know it, and I miss going to lunch with her once a week, and learning about potato greens, and spicy chicken; the memory brings a soft, full, well-fed feeling.
I was working often 80 hours a week in that hospital, a brand new physician, completely overwhelmed by a creeping illness suddenly exacerbated by an unrealistic work schedule. I regret spending so much time worrying about my position in the hospital, and I regret almost all of the time socializing with other military medical professionals, desperate to be liked but too rebellious and different to ever earn any place in those safe, successful hearts. I wish I had spent even more time with Isabel before she left; I am so grateful for the opportunities I did take. Ultimately, I left that residency as it ate away my health and my mind, burdened by my significant moral opposition to the residency’s prevailing philosophy of loyalty to the organization over the patient. None of the female residents in my year or above me who had pretended to care about me really kept contact. They looked down on me for my weakness and had little compassion for my daily chronic pain and worsening chemical depression. My best “friend” at that time seriously used and then deserted me in my time of need, after a relationship so deeply emotionally manipulative and mind-altering that my depression spiraled and I had to be hospitalized. Isabel never judged me, even when I was kind of stupid; she saw my pain with such deep compassion even though I had so much more than she did from a material perspective. I know of people who are so poor they feel uncomfortable, angry, or cruelly unsympathetic towards people who have more than they, and I understand their justification; but Isabel was so rich in spirit that she didn’t see it that way.
There’s an old Hebrew saying, “never muzzle an ox as he treads out the grain,” and a later one to explain that the teacher deserves his due; as Isabel returned to Liberia to rescue the orphanage that could no longer survive without her presence, it would be truly evil of me, with the life I have, not to support her work. To stand by while she lives often without running water or electricity, in extreme heat, eating only rice every day with the occasional vegetables, and not give? I would be as fake as that man of power, and a bad friend to boot.
However, I am finding I cannot, alone, provide for the enormous needs of the orphanage. The government recently dropped off twelve more children; there are five mattresses that need purchasing, a child with severe liver disease who needs $450 worth of medicine, and three teenagers who have graduated high school but cannot afford the mere $1200 ($300 per semester) it would take to pay for their technical school or college. One of the young men wants to become a PA, to be provide medical care of the children at the orphanage, but had to stop school after two semesters because there just isn’t any more money for his schooling. It’s frustrating because most of these costs are so cheap for most people in the US and Europe–six semesters of trade school at $1200 is absolutely unheard of. The younger children need just $50 per month to receive full clothing, education, and food support; a significant amount of their diet comes from Child Aid International, but consists primarily of rice and occasional vegetables, with a slight deficiency in variety and protein.
If you would like to help, you can sponsor or half-sponsor a child for $50 or $25 a month with His Hands Support Ministries. I personally verified sponsorship records and end finances received by Isabel from this volunteer organization, and 100 percent of the funds they receive go to Isabel–not the case with large, admin-heavy organizations like Compassion International. For some people, this sponsorship is literally just the cost of one fancy date a month; for others, it’s the price of a cup of coffee a day. And it makes a huge difference.
Alternatively, if you would like to help fund someone’s college or trade school, get in touch with me at jen at becominghero.ninja, and I will coordinate with His Hands Support Ministries to find a way to make your special donation 501(c)3 tax exempt.
And finally, please share and tell as many people about Isabel’s work as possible!
Thank-you, as always, for your superhero work.
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