Steve Gumaer: “Love causes us to act.”

It is love. Love causes us to act. What would we do to help our own parents or children? We are often called upon to do for others outside our own sphere of relationships. If we have love, our sphere of action will be in an ever-expanding state, and our own contentment/happiness will expand congruently. […]

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It is love. Love causes us to act. What would we do to help our own parents or children? We are often called upon to do for others outside our own sphere of relationships. If we have love, our sphere of action will be in an ever-expanding state, and our own contentment/happiness will expand congruently.

As part of my series about people who stepped up to make a difference during the COVID19 Pandemic, I had the pleasure to interview Steve Gumaer. Steve grew up in Fairbanks, Alaska in an unorthodox, if not dysfunctional, home. He moved out of his parents’ blue trailer just after his 15th birthday to live in a cabin. It was that summer, alone with his books in the wilderness, that Steve began an adventure of the soul to identify meaning and how to live peacefully, instead of in a state of continual chaos.

This led to his eventual decision to move to Thailand when he was 18, where he studied Thai for a year and passed the 6th grade equivalency exam. With his young wife, he then moved to a refugee camp along the Thai -Burma border. There Steve met a refugee named Rose Mu, a widow living in a refugee camp. She asked Steve and his wife, Oddny, to “Please, tell your friends in the West what is happening to Myanmar’s children.”

Sitting on her bamboo floor drinking weak tea from a dirty tin cup, Rose told Steve about the four-year-old girl that was brought to her the night before. She described how resistance soldiers found her hiding in bushes outside of her home village after it was attacked by Burmese soldiers. Out of all the people who called that village home, this young girl was the only survivor the pro-democracy resistance soldiers found.

She went on to say that, “Her parents were probably running with their child, being pursued by soldiers.” And that before the soldiers caught up to them, they likely, “hid her in some bushes and ran in a different direction, luring the enemy troops away from their daughter.”

When Steve and his wife calculated the cost for comprehensive care for this little girl, living with Rose and her own two children, the total was $30 for an entire year — about eight cents per day. Steve committed to that support on the spot and that set off a chain of events leading to the establishment of Partners Relief & Development, an international NGO that works to help children in war zones.

Steve has found meaning in living by the Golden Rule and being the change he wants to see in the world. He has also learned that peace is being present to this moment in time; the people, circumstances, work, and environment are all to be lived through and into, not rehearsing or revisiting some story constructed by the mind.

After living in Thailand for 23 years, Steve now resides in Frosta, Norway with his wife Oddny, their three daughters, and faithful Goldendoodle, Floyd.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about how and where you grew up?

I grew up in Fairbanks Alaska in a trailer on the 2.8-mile Gilmore Trail. The hilly area is wooded and beautiful and as a child I roamed freely through the blueberry patches, birch forests, and around the tundra. I remember standing in awe of the long arctic sunsets of July and the overwhelming beauty of the Aurora Borealis of January. The highlight of my childhood was driving to Harding Lake, listening to the Eagles, and fishing trout while camping with my Dad.

Is there a book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

The book that has consistently impacted me the most since I first read it in Bangkok (in 1988) is Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In the book, the protagonist kills a pawn broker because she takes advantage of those in dire, poor circumstances. Just after he kills her with an axe, he has a nightmare where a group of brutal men are whipping a horse to death. Killing the horse elicits outrage in the book, while killing the pawnbroker is portrayed as a justifiable action. That juxtaposition of moral questions is something I think a lot about.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Victor Hugo, “To love is to act.”

Children who are suffering because adults are fighting in war need help, not sentiment. Children who lack food, shelter, the nurture of family and community, and access to healthcare and education, need those things to be provided. They do not need a person who sighs in pity that “the world is a terrible place” and goes on doing nothing to make it better. If we say we care, we must act. If we say we love, we must act.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. You are currently leading a social impact organization that has stepped up during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to address?

Partners Relief & Development is a humanitarian service organization. We work where violence and political complexity prevent children from having the basic things they need to survive and thrive. The context of our work is where war has decimated infrastructure and civil society. We have worked in the ethnic states of Myanmar and the surrounding countries for 26 years, and since 2016 have worked in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Regardless of the sectarian, tribal, or social divide, where children suffer is where we go. Our vision is the re-establishment of their mechanisms of survival with the provision of relief supply, and then to work with what possibilities exist to establish healthcare and education for them.

With the arrival of COVID-19 our team, and all our operations, had to pivot in response to the increased threat of suffering and death among the displaced and refugee populations we serve. Our training center turned into a soap manufacturing outfit, making liquid and solid soap to distribute among migrant communities in North Thailand and in the ethnic states of Myanmar. Where distant populations reside, like the Rohingya in Bangladesh or the Kurds in Northeast Syria, we had to arrange purchase and delivery of personal protective equipment locally. Our sewing and weaving project stopped making feminine hygiene products and bags to make masks and distribute them to the same underserved and vulnerable populations.

Our program delivery at every level has changed to include a rapid and thorough response to the COVID-19 threat.

In your opinion, what does it mean to be a hero?

A hero has courage in the stoic sense. A hero will do the right and beautiful thing regardless of personal risk.

In your opinion or experience, what are “5 characteristics of a hero? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. A hero is not fake. A hero is a true self and finds courage from his/her deepest values and convictions. This person will live from the inner strength of his/her deepest self and will stop living in conformity to social conditioning. Shihab, a Yazidi genocide survivor, is a team member of Partners Relief & Development. Being a minority person, he is often treated poorly and disregarded by other members of his society. The horrific violence he has survived has turned him into a gentle yet unstoppable force. Instead of becoming overwhelmed by grief, bitterness, and rage, Shihab has tapped into the depths of his soul and found meaning, peace, and resolve. With kind persistence, he can negotiate critical issues with powerful people and government officers who would otherwise dismiss him. And when he is disrespected, he keeps his nerve and walks to the car with a big smile, eventually laughing at the silly world we live in. Shihab is in his skin. He is a hero.
  2. A hero does the right thing regardless of personal risk, even if it is fearful and dangerous. Brad Hazlett, Senior Vice of Operations for Partners Relief & Development, once ran into the fury of a gunfight between ISIS and the Iraqi army. He had seen a group of women and children, barefooted and tentative, picking their way through the rubble of a street being liberated by the Iraqi Army. He ran to them, took a child into his arms and carried her because the woman carrying her was so fatigued that she was dropping her. Brad ran through the rubble, leading the diminished group to the Casualty Collection Point where they would be relatively safe. I have a picture of this moment and it reminds me that a hero does the right thing regardless of risk.
  3. A hero is humble. Num is a Shan staff member who coordinates all our work in Shan State (Myanmar) — home to approximately 10 million people. He has been instrumental in the training of hundreds of village health workers, establishing self-sustaining schools, setting up large scale and successful agricultural projects meant to help farmers provide for their families despite the state of war and systemic oppression. Num is extremely smart and talented. He will never take credit but instead gives it to others on his team who made it possible. He is quick to mention his failures and false starts, and he can articulate what he learned from them. He is visionary but not pushy. He is confident, not arrogant. Num is humble. Num is a hero.
  4. A hero does not give up. Despite resistance, opposition, lack of money, and support, a hero persists in doing the right, and beautiful, thing. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ, Nelson Mandela, and the other cultural icons of heroism all share this trait. I follow them and aspire to match their tenacity for spreading good.
  5. A hero is spiritual. Even if one is an atheist, the heroes I interact with accept that they are not the center of reality, that something stands above them and gives meaning and perspective to the affairs of planet earth. That is everyone I mentioned here. They are all spiritual.

If heroism is rooted in doing something difficult, scary, or even self-sacrificing, what do you think drives some people — ordinary people — to become heroes?

It is love. Love causes us to act. What would we do to help our own parents or children? We are often called upon to do for others outside our own sphere of relationships. If we have love, our sphere of action will be in an ever-expanding state, and our own contentment/happiness will expand congruently.

What was the specific catalyst for you or your organization to take heroic action? At what point did you personally decide that heroic action needed to be taken?

A walk into a refugee camp in Southeast Asia in 1994. I met the only known survivor of an attacked village and was asked to help her. That was the catalyst for everything our organization has done.

Who are your heroes, or who do you see as heroes today?

I admire many people. The ones I have already referenced, due to the privilege of close and sustained observation, are my living heroes: Brad Hazlett, Shihab, and Num. Bono is another one I think of as a hero, but my awareness of him as a person is somewhat hollow. I admire Bono because he has used his social status to help the poor, reduce debilitating debt holding millions in a state of destitution in Africa, and consistently adheres to a message of social justice that inspires me. Bono is a hero.

Let’s talk a bit about what is happening in the world today. What specifically frightened or frightens you most about the pandemic?

That the poor and oppressed, living in a weakened state in close quarters, will suffer disproportionately.

Despite that, what gives you hope for the future? Can you explain?

That this is a fixable problem. When humankind acts on the sentiment of love, the world is changed. I see this happening everywhere I go. I know many wealthy individuals who generously give, even when their investments are hurting, to help refugees and displaced people on the other side of the world. And it is most visible among the poor themselves. They are quick to share, assist a struggling neighbor, and sacrifice in many ways in order that another would make it through a troubling time.

What has inspired you the most about the behavior of people during the pandemic, and what behaviors do you find most disappointing?

People reaching out in their communities to help and those who even reach out more than before in order to ease the suffering of the infirm, elderly, or most vulnerable people in society. The volunteerism, sacrificial generosity, and tenacity of health workers is amazing to see. Conversely, seeing selfish disregard for others in a time when community is core is disappointing when it happens.

Has this crisis caused you to reassess your view of the world or of society? We would love to hear what you mean.

I feel the world is more cohesive than it was before. People are watching international news and talking about how this will affect refugees, the poor and displaced families of the world, and those with medical conditions making them more likely to suffer. There seems to be an increasing sense of empathy for others, which draws us closer, rather than guilt which makes us walk away in disregard.

What permanent societal changes would you like to see come out of this crisis?

Stronger collaboration and more empathy for the plight of others in the world. Less dualistic thinking in terms of who are our enemies and who are our friends.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

Find one person who needs your shoulder, strength, time, or mere presence, and give it. Note the increased sense of contentedness in yourself. Do it again. Love will grow if it is nurtured by action.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Take what our team does for children in war zones and multiple that impact; bring an end to armed conflict.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂


How can our readers follow you online?

Personal Pages

@stevegumaer on Twitter

Steve Gumaer on Facebook

Partners Relief & Development Pages

@PartnersRelief on Twitter

Partners Relief & Development on Facebook

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work.

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