Transcending political, religious and cultural boundaries is one of many proud (and personal favorite) characteristics of the Flying Eye Hospital. In my year with ORBIS, I have heard this repeated many times and when you look at the history of countries visited, you do not question this fact for one single moment.
However, during this recent program in Harbin, China, I experienced this very characteristic with my own eyes.
Photo courtesy of Mr. Meng Chen
Mind you, ORBIS has worked in China for nearly 25 years and has landed the Flying Eye Hospital more than 30 times in this country. However, this is the first time the plane has landed in the Heilongjiang Province and in Harbin. With security tensions already running high during the Olympic Games in Beijing, mixed in with having to land a DC-10 aircraft outfitted as a teaching and surgical facility, the Harbin International Airport pulled all stops in making sure that its city, province and country received our aircraft with strict policies and procedures most unseen before by the present ORBIS crew.
I won't bother you with the details of each procedure or the countless meetings we had with the airport in attempt to negotiate the landing and operation of our DC-10 and program, but will say that the plane was met with security measures and procedures that can only be described as presidential.
Despite the strict security rules, it didn't take long before we began to communicate with and warm up to the security personnel. As we bustled aboard the plane and around it as we unpacked, the guards and security personnel became more curious to us and the plane we were transforming. Wanting to break the unnecessary tensions, we grabbed a hand-full of ORBIS plane pins and walked (carefully mind you) up to each guard (stationed at each corner of the fenced in parking space) handed them a plane pin and invited them to tour the aircraft. This invitation seemed to breakdown the roles we played as representatives of policy, rules and organized entities - them to us and us to them - and a friendlier, human relationship was introduced.
Before we knew it, we were touring the plane with military police and other security personnel; smiling, laughing and explaining all the bells and whistles that the Flying Eye Hospital is equipped with to deliver its sight saving programs. A wall seemed to come down, tensions slowly dissipated and in the spirit of goodwill, and with the Flying Eye Hospital looking on like a mother watching her children mingle with others kids at a playground, new relationships were formed and tensions that caused extra efforts and long days leading up the plane's arrival withered away leaving room for people to meet new people and to join together in our mission to eliminate avoidable blindness.
It's amazing to me how far a smile, a handshake and a DC-10 humanitarian aircraft can go in establishing a foundation of trust, similarity and benevolence.