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In a Strange Year, We Look for the Helpers

The 2020s so far have been a whirlwind of rising risks, crises, conflicts, and challenges. The Security Management team collects the strangest bits of news brought to us by this decade in our Strange Security series, but we also keep track of the oddly wonderful news that reminds us why we—and so many security professionals—do this job. Despite seeing some of the worst of humanity, we also catch glimpses of the best of humanity.

So, in this—your last Strange Security post of 2023—we decided to do a quick roundup of some of the most heartwarming security news that came across the Security Management news chat this year. Because as Fred Rogers’ mother told him, when news is scary, be sure to look for the helpers.


Number 5

A Whiff of Danger: Millions of children take buses to school every day, and bus drivers face the difficult task of driving safely while minding dozens of often rowdy kids. Milwaukee-area bus driver Imunek Williams had the added task of saving the students, herself, and her unborn baby from a fire. While waiting for a red light to change, Williams started smelling smoke, which was coming out of a heater on the vehicle. She pulled over, evacuated the 37 students, and within a few seconds saw the bus catch fire.

“I’m older than everybody, and everybody is kind of under my care,” Williams told The Washington Post. “So, I just thought to stay calm and not overreact because I didn’t want them to react in a way that would have caused us to take longer to get off the bus.”

Number 4

Animals of Influence: Mine-sniffing dogs and fundraising felines have been helping the war effort in Ukraine. Money raised from Stepan the cat’s Instagram account was used to help evacuate animals in flooded areas of Ukraine, repair a damaged library, and cheer up children and people affected by the war. Patron, the mine-sniffing Jack Russel terrier, has an Instagram page that offers pictures, hope, inspiration, and advice for Ukrainians, the BBC reported.

“Hope matters. We hope that this will be over soon. We hope that victory is near. We hope that people won't be killed anymore. Sometimes hope is all we've got,” reads one of his posts. “Don't lose hope, I'm begging you. Now, let me give you a hopeful lick!”

Number 3

The Value of a Violin: A single thoughtful gift can be the cornerstone to someone’s new life, especially when that individual had to flee a major conflict.

When the Taliban took over Afghanistan in 2021, star violinist Ali Esmahilzada burned his sheet music and hid his violin before fleeing the country. Because the Taliban prohibited playing music and considered possessing an instrument a crime, Esmahilzada was afraid to bring his cherished violin with him when he came to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa in 2022. He was able to bring few personal possessions, and buying a new violin felt out of reach. But when a sound designer heard about the violinist from a friend, he decided to offer his 110-year-old German-made violin, which had been collecting dust in his closet, The Washington Post reported. A colleague took it with him across the country from New York City to Los Angeles and delivered it to Esmahilzada. Beyond the gift of the violin, Esmahilzada became friends with Latif Nassar, who delivered it, and has been able to build a community of support in his newly adopted nation.

Number 2

A Thousand Selfless Haircuts: Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela has been polluted by leaking crude oil for years, with iridescent oil slicks covering the surface of the water and endangering wildlife. In an effort to help, Selene Estrach founded Proyecto Sirena, a national network of activists working to save the lack by collecting and using hair. Yes, hair—human, pet, or otherwise, keratin-rich hair has been used to soak up oil for decades, and it’s better at absorbing oil than other materials, holding between 11 and 17 pounds of oil per two pounds of hair.

But there’s a lot of oil in Lake Maracaibo, and that needs a lot of hair. Estrach recruited salons to donate their trimmings, and 600 signed up to help, producing seven tons of hair every three months. Hair stylists and students held donation drives, giving free haircuts to thousands of people (and pets) to collect more hair for the project and clean up a natural landmark in their country.

Number 1

From the Fire to the Frying Pan: The disastrous August wildfire in Hawaii, shocked many people this year. It killed 100 people, burned acres of land, and razed cultural and historical landmarks in the area. But even in the darkest times, people find a way to share and care for each other. Joey and Juvy Macadangdang are two of those helpers. For weeks after the fires, they lived in their restaurant (Joey’s Kitchen in Lahaina, Hawaii) and operated a kitchen for the masses, the Post reported. They gave away anywhere from 300 to 800 plates of food a day to displaced families, aid workers, firefighters, and passersby in the days after the fire, and they housed as many as 20 people at a time.

Earlier this month, the Lahaina historic district reopened for residents and business owners holding day passes—four months after the fires. One of the places that reopened includes Banyan Tree Park, which is home to a 150-year-old tree that burned in the fire but sprouted new leaves—a symbol of Hawaii’s ability to survive and regrow.