Here is the full transcript of Doron Almog’s TEDx Talk: The Greatest Teacher of My Life at TEDxTelAviv conference.
Doron Almog – Former Major General (Israel Defense Forces)
What is the parents’ dream?
If I asked you to choose two words describing the parents’ dream, I believe most of you would say, “A healthy child.”
When we, on our cell phone, show pictures of a successful child, as a matter of fact, we speak about ourselves, because who made him? It’s the extension of our own ego.
Our second child was born in 1984. We gave him the name of my brother that was killed in the war, and expected him to be better than us; more successful, more talented. A source of pride.
At the age of eight months, he was diagnosed – Didi, my wife and me were told by the psychologist, “Your son has a combination of autism and retardation. Probably he will never speak. Probably he will mentally, stay as a child forever.” That was a shock.
The sky fell on our head. The parents’ dream became broken parents’ dream. How do we continue managing our life if our son has no future at all? This son, all his life, has never said one word. Never said, (Hebrew) “Abba,” Dad; never said, (Hebrew) “Eema,” Mum; never made eye contact. He was the greatest professor of my life. He told me…
He told me more than any other human being about myself, about our society, about children like him. These children, unable to eat by themselves, unable to dress by themselves, even unable to say, “Please replace my diaper.” These children are punished for two life sentence. One: a broken body for all their life. Second, one day, being taken and put in an institution, which is a life-long jail.
When he was born, at that time, I was special force unit commander, 33 years old, Lieutenant Colonel, leading operations in Sudan to bring Jews who were in life danger from Ethiopia to the State of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world.
Behind me were hundreds of battles: all over the Middle East in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and more. Behind me was the very famous rescue operation in Entebbe, 1976, rescuing 105 Israeli hostages who were kept for one week, one week of their life hostage. I was the first on the ground… I was the first on the ground and the last to leave the Entebbe airfield.
Behind me were the memories of the Yom Kippur War, 1973. In this war, I lost many of my friends. In many moments, I thought I won’t see the next morning. But above all, the memories of the telephone conversation with my mother at the end of that war. My brother fought in the Golan Heights. I fought in the south, and I was afraid to ask, then, I got the courage and she said, “We lost Eran, we have no Eran anymore.” My brother was killed.
I came home, continued to the Golan Heights to investigate his last battle. I found his burnt tank. And shockingly, I learned to know that he was shot by a Syrian tank, thrown outside, bleeding, bleeding, shouting for assistance for seven days. He has evacuated, dead already. I was rageous, frustrated, angry, and I swore… I swore to never ever leave a wounded soldier behind .
11 years later, Didi, my wife, and me are raising a child, who is like the extension of my bleeding brother. And this child-like saying, “My dear father, you know a lot about special forces. You know a lot about highly motivated soldiers. But my dear father, you know zero about children like me. About the shame, the stigma, the stereotype. Come over, my dear father, give me your hand. Let’s go, let’s move and see places where children like me are hauled.”
We moved from institute to institute. We saw dirty, stinky, dark places. Children like him were ignored, abused, harassed. We came home crying. Then we started learning about the shame.
For instance, Golda Meir, our commander-in-chief during the Yom Kippur in the 70s, the one who sent me and my friends to hunt down the terrorists behind the Munich massacre of 11 Israeli sportsmen, 1972. Golda Meir was also a grandmother to Meira, a Down syndrome granddaughter. And Meira told the Israeli public after Golda passing, “Golda never visited me; Golda didn’t love me; Golda was fully ashamed in my presence.” Golda told my mum to never mention the Prime Minister of Israel having a retarded granddaughter.
Then, we heard more stories of distinguished and ordinary people hiding their children overseas and in some institute in Israel. Inside me, I continued hearing the sound of my child, “My dear father, wake up! I’m the hostage in our society, unable to do anything by my power. Will you fight for me? Will you change our society? Will you give me hope?”
We decided to fight for him. We decided to love him, never to be ashamed. For him, and others like him, we built a village. A wonderful place, a paradise. No longer isolated in an institution, surrounded by walls of silence. but rather social community center. A paradise, Utopian society; Christian, Muslims, and Jews, working in full harmony to serve children like our loved son, to love them.
In this village, we give them the best housing, the best education, the best health care, the best food, the best clothes, the best social life, culture, music, gardens, any need. And in this village, we created a new model of acceptance, a new model of integration. How come? By four elements. Number one: rehabilitation. Number two: education. Number three: visits. Number four: volunteers.
The rehabilitation model is based on every day, about 200 outpatients from the outside community, arriving to be treated together with the most severely disabled children, like our loved son, metaphorically and physically. It says that at the same swimming pool you may find a soldier wounded in battle, head of regional municipality after stroke, parliament member after a road accident, Down syndrome, Bedouin girl, and someone like our loved child. We give them various kinds of therapeutic treatment like hydrotherapy, physiotherapy, music therapy, horse riding, animal therapy, vocational therapy, anything, any therapy ever invented. We have there.
The second element: education. At the center of the rehabilitation center, we placed ordinary kindergarten for ordinary kids from age one. We teach children from age one to accept those who are unable, those who unprivileged, the severely disabled. We teach them what is social responsibility from age one.
The third element: visits. Every day, about hundred people are arriving to visit to see the wonder. They are moved, they are excited. People from the United States and Europe; tourists, high-tech workers, soldiers, veteran, parents. People are arriving and saying, “We got a propulsion. We’ll assist you to change our society. We are your messengers.”
Number four: volunteers. We have more than 400 volunteers. Some of them arriving from Germany, and this young Christian from Berlin saying, ” We come for atonement on the murder of the six million Jews in the Second World War; we come for atonement on Hitler’s decision to kill the disabled when Second World War started. They are saying, “No more discrimination. No more racism. Human-being is human-being. We all equal by our rights, not equal by our power.”
They are very well integrated with about 100 Muslims workers, Bedouin from the south, with about 600 Jews, to serve the severely disabled children. They are saying, “We are more given than giving. We’ll assist you to change the world. We’ll assist you by being your ambassadors.”
Tonight, exactly tonight, February 6. We count ten years for the passing of our loved child. He’s not anymore with us. He was living for one wonderful year in the village that we built especially for him. His spirit spread to every corner of the village. His spirit is here at my heart. His spirit is the goodness in our world.
14 years ago, I left the military as Major General to build this village, to be his mouthpiece; to change our society; for continued fighting for him, and like him until my last day.
A year ago, I was decorated by the highest award the State of Israel can give to a citizen; the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement. This prize… This prize should be given to him, not to me. I am only the messenger. He changed me. He made me a better human being; more humble, less selfish, less arrogant. If the number of children like him is only one per cent of the world’s population, this one per cent can change the 99 per cent. This one per cent can be the teacher and educator the same as he was for me.
This one per cent can make the 99 per cent more humble, less selfish, less arrogant. The social chain is always measured by its weakest link. The more we do to strengthen this link, the better and stronger society we are.
In the military, we decorate people and soldiers for bravery and courage. In our social life, it seems to me the highest decoration a person can be given by the disabled, by the one per cent children like him is the title: ‘human being.’ Thank you.