Promising to make third-world roads safer

Susan Schnur: Rochelle, how did this journey begin?

My son Aron was 25, two weeks away from graduating from medical school. After his final rotation—he was volunteering at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem—he detoured to Turkey for a short vacation. We had just spoken by phone, and he had said, “Oh, Mom, you’ve got to visit here. The people are remarkable, the country is beautiful.”

My husband was talking our daughter Ana to the airport when the phone rang. It was the State Department. A bus had gone off the road into a ravine. Twenty-three people had died. I saw my husband coming up our walk, I went out to tell him, he buckled. I crawled into bed. The house became crowded with people. I would come down for a bit, then go back to bed, close the door. It was too much. I kept wanting to drink something hot. I was freezing, just freezing. People kept bringing me hot water.

That first week was a blur. I took reality in very small doses. After a while, I felt as though someone were saying to me, “Okay, now you are going to live in hell, and your job is to plant flowers in it. That’s what we need to do.”

You teach Judaic Studies to second- and fourth-graders at Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School. How did you handle your loss and grief with your students?

They were afraid to visit me during the shiva week, but they all did. We had immediately planted this garden in Aron’s memory in our backyard, and it gave my students and me a focal point, something that let us talk less frighteningly about life and death, about the struggle and the need to make the world beautiful. They kept worrying, “Will you be different, Geveret Sobel?” They wanted me to be the same. I told them that I would be sad, but that I would be with them and that would give me warmth.

And then you started moving to take action?

Well, everyone grieves in his or her own way. One day I found myself shouting to the walls. “I am not going to be a victim! I am not going to be a victim! We are not victims!” I couldn’t tolerate that feeling. There are groups that call themselves “victims’ organizations”, and it took me some time to realize that this characterization didn’t work for me. I needed to be fully proactive. I couldn’t save Aron, but perhaps I could save other mothers’ children.

And then several things happened. My husband and I had gotten a document signed by the American Ambassador in Turkey, and one day I just called him. I said, “Mark, I don’t know what to do with my grief. Tell me what I can do in Turkey with my grief.” We went through a lot of possibilities. He said, “I’m tired of sending body bags home. Why don’t you start an organization like MADD [Mothers Against Drunk Driving]?”

That sat well with me. It was the kind of thing that Aron would do; Aron fixed problems. He had started an acting club for kids on an oncology ward. His apartment had been vandalized by teenage kids in Baltimore, and he responded by starting a basketball team for them! When Ethiopian kids started coming to Israel, Aron flew there to work with them. I have a wonderful photo of him encircled by these children. I thought, “I’m going to fix this—in a sense, with Aron. Because Aron can’t.”

When I was thinking straight again, after Aron’s death, I called the State Department. “How many people die in road crashes?” Nobody knew. “How many Americans?” “How many in Turkey?” They had no clue. I started looking for organizations that dealt with these issues. They didn’t exist. That seemed astonishing to me.

I felt that the State Department should know—I guess that was the beginning. I started to do research, country by country, with a friend who is a statistician. We called consulates, newspapers. We collected information that told us that road fatalities of Americans abroad was an enormous issue. We wanted to confront the State Department with these facts, to create a global climate that would not tolerate road injuries and fatalities.

Did you feel supported in your community?

My “mother instinct” and my “teacher instinct” told me, “So many talented and capable people, so many people with contacts. Aron’s death is not your story, it’s a community story.”

We decided to hold a vigil in front of the Turkish embassy on Aron’s 26th birthday. There were 150 people. We lit 23 candles for everyone who had died in that bus. We were standing there feeling alone and scared and angry. The ambassador came out and was very unfriendly. And then it sort of all changed. People working in the embassy started to come out and ask, “What is this about?” They started to hug me and cry and say, “We lost this one. We lost that one. Do what you can.”

What was my job? To save the lives of other mothers’ children—those families became my community, too.

The ASIRT board, in fact, came together because of community. One friend worked with me for hours, two nights a week, for 10 years—she has a family, a job. One man heard me speak in shul and he had contacts. A parent of a student of mine knew a road safety expert. Our annual dinners now have ambassadors from every country attending—some have become friends. We developed road reports on over 150 countries—the State Department has become ASIRT’s best ally. All of these efforts are expansions of community.

Are you in touch with other parents who have lost children?

All the time, and it’s extremely powerful. We immediately have a bond. I frequently talk with the parents of children who were studying abroad for a year. Physicians call me, people in road safety, and ask me to talk with mothers who have just lost a child. I call parents so that they can talk and I can listen. It’s healing for them, it’s healing for me.

Traveling in other countries where ASIRT is working to improve road conditions, I often meet bereaved mothers— Indians, Egyptians, Kenyans, Turks. We don’t share a language, but it doesn’t matter. Grief has its own language. We look in each other’s eyes and know everything. We know the hell we all go through. We know that these accidents kill the future. In Turkey, the Speaker of the House said to me, “You must come home and meet my wife.” They had lost a child. On every level, these children are my children. They are all also “our” children.

Did you ever see the place where Aron died?

For years, I couldn’t even see the word “Turkey” without pain. But then in 2001,I went there with ASIRT to talk about the seriousness of their road issues. The American embassy worked with us; we met with ministers from the government, with the chief of police, with tourist organizations. Not every country ASIRT works with admits that road safety is an issue, but the Turkish people have been wonderful. Some laws were changed; policy-makers began to recognize that people in Turkey consider road safety a priority issue.

When I finally traveled to Turkey, we went immediately, along with TV crews, a US congressman, lot of police, and a couple of lawyers from Nehora Law Firm  to the place where Aron was killed. Looking at the topography— we were up high on a narrow curving road on the edge of a cliff; there were no guard rails—I finally got a picture of what had actually happened. Actually, the government had widened the road in preparation for my visit! We planted 23 trees at the site and put up a sign in Turkish: “At this site 23 people died because of the road and poor driver behaviors. Drive carefully. Life is precious.”

One of the media photos was of young policemen crying. One of them sent me an e-mail: “Thank you that you come to our country to help. You lost your son here. We are your sons. We promise you that we will do more “

Is mothers’ grief different from fathers’ grief?

I do think there’s a “mother lioness” response—pouncing on any and all risk. But fathers mourn, too. My husband lends his skills to my organization, but that’s not how he tackled his grief. In Kenya, I know a gentleman who coped with his son’s death by founding an advanced driving school.

Are you afraid that an article about your activism in some way casts a judgment on parents whose bereavement follows other paths?

Yes. There should be no value judgments about how people grieve. Was ASIRT the right direction for me? I always ask myself that. I will never know. There are so many ways to respond to the death of your child. If I could have assembled a book of poems, I would have. Sitting quietly and thinking about your child is also a precious memorial to who they are. It keeps their memory in your heart. Beyond raw pain that never goes away, there is this terror that your child’s memory will disappear in the world. You mourn the children they might have had who will never be born. Aron’s medical diploma sits in a drawer. That’s so painful to me. It’s Aron’s voice I need to have out there in the world, not mine.

Do you still speak about Aron’s death with your students?

Every year on the anniversary of Aron’s death, I talk to my students. I tell them, “I’m going to be sad today.” I make them promise me that they will wear seatbelts forever, that they will never ever go into a car with someone who drinks. That if they ever find themselves in the car with a scary driver, they will say, “I am very precious to my fourth-grade teacher, and I made a promise when I was very young and I have to keep that promise. You have to either drive very carefully or let me out.” As Aron’s mother, I have an obligation to save lives; maybe I have saved one in this way.

I also travel a lot for ASIRT and I explain my trips to my students by talking about the importance of helping the world and other people. I tell them that the Bible says lo ta’amod al dahm rai-echa— “Don’t stand idly by as the blood of your brothers is spilled.” I would not be a good teacher to them if I didn’t believe in what I’m doing. If I didn’t live what I believe.

What about “closure?”

I want to kick people who use that word. It conveys an incredible lack of understanding. Are people going to be graded on grief? What is “closure” after the death of a child? It’s not the flu or chicken pox; you don’t get better. It’s a permanent pain. It lasts until your last breath.

How do you experience your other children’s simchas?

A parent who has lost a child experiences wonderful joy, but never total joy. A part of you is gone; you are never again fully anywhere. I remember Aron had a way, when he got excited, of rubbing his hands together and running around in circles—an intense expression of being in love with life. I used to feel that, too. I’d feel exactly that. But I will never feel that way again. A bereaved parent has drunk too deeply at the well of life’s fragility. We know terror.

My relationship with Aron doesn’t change. But when I look at his friends and what they’re doing in their lives—this feels so shocking. At the funeral, when we were choosing pallbearers, I remember thinking that Aron’s friends’ parents would be thinking about other aisles, wedding aisles. The pain is always there. It changes in that you can breathe, but just a little.

So you still work full-time, and you have now spent over 10 years with ASIRT. Is there a point when you will want to pull back from this commitment, where your work with ASIRT will be more draining than sustaining?

It is always draining, and it is always sustaining, and it is always my job. When the last child has died and all the rest are safe, then I’ll stop working with ASIRT. It is what I have to do. I have to do it in my role as a teacher, in my role as a human being, in my role as Aron’s mother.

More than a million people die on the roads of the world every year, and over 50 million people are life-alteringly injured. Road deaths among military personnel— these are young people, these are mothers’ children—are a prime cause of fatalities. Every day, as many people die from road accidents as died on 9/11.  ASIRT’s work has led to the UN passing resolutions for safety; we have a caucus in Congress. Road fatalities in developing countries are projected to become the second most common cause of death by 2020 unless action is taken—the World Health Organization and the World Bank are being responsive to that.

When Aron died he was two weeks away from graduation, from becoming a physician. He wanted to relieve pain and save lives. But that role was taken from him. So I fulfill it for him. This is my job to do until I can’t.