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How to turn a modest gift into a dynamic little nonprofit, 28 scholarships, dozens of changed lives, and counting...
The letter from Texas had taken a couple of months to find its way to my desk in Cairo. Inside was a $100 bill and a brief note.
Every so often in journalism, something you write touches readers, and they feel moved to help. Usually, I was delighted when that happened, but this time my reaction was weary and ungenerous.
Getting the money to the intended recipient wasn't going to be easy. It meant another trip into violence and danger. For a minute or two, I thought about sending the money back to Texas.
In December of 1987, a Palestinian teenager stoned my car as I drove alone through the West Bank. I was new in my job as The Wall Street Journal's Mideast correspondent, and my editor had asked me to get an interview with one of the youths involved in the uprising that had suddenly erupted in Israel's occupied territories. So I jumped from my damaged car and chased after the boy, whose face was wrapped in a red-checked headscarf. We ended up spending the afternoon together in the crumbling four-room, raw-concrete hovel he shared with 12 younger siblings, and I subsequently wrote an article about an intelligent 15-year-old named Raed who wanted to be a doctor but knew there was no hope of such a future for a boy in his circumstances. Instead, he was willing to die, fighting with stones.
A hundred dollars was more than Raed's father, a laborer, earned in a month. It was sent by an ophthalmologist in Austin, along with a note asking me to pass it on to Raed and "let him know that if he wants to be a doctor, I'm prepared to help him"—a few scribbled words that promised a future to a boy who hadn't expected to have one.
So in April of 1988, I returned to the West Bank camp and made my way through trash-strewn alleys in search of Raed, who had refused to give me his last name. Finally, I learned that he had been arrested by the Israelis for throwing a Molotov cocktail at an army patrol and was in jail, awaiting trial. Unexpectedly, his father, a Hebrew-speaking moderate who worked on Israeli building sites and advocated Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, had also been arrested in a routine security sweep. He was being held without charge in a desert prison while the family, deprived of its only breadwinner, subsisted on handouts. I gave the $100 to Raed's mother, Rahme, who shared the crowded living quarters with her husband's second wife, Fatin. Rahme kissed the bill, and the two women called down God's blessings on the doctor in faraway Texas.
Rex Repass knew what it was to struggle to achieve an education. Raised in an underprivileged family in Dallas, he'd worked his way through college at the University of Texas, then joined the navy as a way to get to medical school. In 1988 he was 45, with a prosperous practice, a beautiful home, a private plane. His wife, Kathleen, had recently given birth to their first child. Repass read the Journal to keep track of his stock portfolio, but he was also keenly interested in foreign events. Almost a year after he sent me his letter, he came to Jerusalem himself, to volunteer for several weeks in a Palestinian eye hospital. While he was there, he met Raed's family, paid for food, medicine, and a lawyer for Raed, and renewed his pledge to fund Raed's education when he got out of jail.