Paying for an operation, and helping to keep four babies warm

24 февраля 2012, 14:38

It was a day when I was experiencing donor fatigue, so at first I wished I hadn’t received the call I got on a recent Wednesday.

Two days before, a sweet little Tatar friend had told me she needed an operation in Almaty for a serious sinus condition.

Astana boasts excellent doctors, so Asmira’s condition must have been really threatening for physicians here to recommend that she go to an Almaty specialist.

“I’m sorry to hear about your sinus problem,” I said. “Can I do anything for you? Do you need money for your trip?”

I had helped her family out of a financial pinch a few months before, so she was reluctant to ask for more. But finally she said she needed $1,500 for the operation.

I’m in decent financial shape, but I’m not in the Bill Gates category. So I asked a Western friend who makes a lot more money if he’d split the $1,500 cost of the operation with me.

I had never asked this friend – I’ll call him Todd because he doesn’t want public credit for his generosity – for money before. But he’d known me long enough to be certain I wouldn’t ask for money if it weren’t absolutely necessary.

Todd immediately agreed to put up $750 of the cost of the surgery.

He asked for no details about Asmira or her condition. He just agreed to give me the money – and asked me not to tell anyone he was helping.

I had long liked and respected Todd, but the fact that he insisted on no recognition for his generosity made me like and respect him even more.

The next day I called Asmira to say I had the money.

Not two hours later, I got a call from another young friend whom I’ll call Gulzira.

“I know this family with four babies that needs money for coal to keep their house warm,” she said. “Can you help?”

I had known Gulzira more than a year. During that time, she had constantly reached out to help others in need, although she makes little money herself. So I knew she was telling me the truth about this family’s plight.

The father – I’ll call him Rustam -- worked in the same small furniture-making factory where Gulzira was office manager. He made only $500 a month, which meant that he and his wife and two sets of twins had to live in a village 30 kilometers from Astana to afford rent.

In a normal winter, Rustam would have had enough money to pay for the coal, Gulzira said. But everyone knows what this winter has been like. The bitter cold has led to a lot more fuel being consumed to keep houses warm – and that included Rustam’s house.

“I’m worried about the babies,” Gulzira told me. “The wife gave birth only eight days ago to twin girls. And the twin boys are only 2 years old.”

 I thought about the danger that running out of coal would pose to the girls in particular. After all, they were newborns – just days old. They couldn’t take an ice-cold house more than a day or two.

Lack of heat could literally be life-threatening to these little ones.

Gulzira told me that Rustam, who was in his late 20s, was a hard worker and good guy. “He’s got a really good heart,” she said.

And he took his family responsibilities seriously, doing the best he could to provide for his wife and children.

He had earned a bachelors degree in teaching at a university in the region about seven years ago, she said, but decided not to become a teacher because of low pay.

Kazakhstan has been steadily raising teacher salaries the past few years, but  the pay still lags that of most professionals.

When Rustam realized his coal supply was going to run out far sooner than he expected, he asked his boss for an advance on his salary. But the boss told him there wasn’t enough money, that the company’s sales had tailed off this winter .

So Gulzira came to me on Rustam’s behalf – or, actually, on the babies’ behalf.

I told her I wished that her timing had been better, that Todd and I had given someone $1,500 for an operation just hours before.

Then I thought about those precious babies, particularly the two vulnerable newborn girls.

“How much does Rustam need?” I asked.

“Two hundred dollars for coal for the next couple of months,” she replied.

I thought about how little that Gulzira was asking to save four babies’ lives – the same amount I would spend on a nice sweater for myself, for example.

So I asked her to meet me that evening. And when she did, I handed her 30,000 tenge.

The operation and the coal had cost Todd and me $1,700.

But we agreed as we ate dinner in a cozy neighborhood pub that it was the best money we’d spent in a long time.

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