Behind the scenes, Kennedy labored to fix individual wrongs

August 27th, 2009 | by addis portal |

They left their homes in Ethiopia to seek an education, and while they were away, in the 1970s, violent turmoil erupted in their country. A military regime seized power, targeted its enemies, and killed their relatives. Fearing for their lives, Abebe Abraham and his wife, Azenegash, sought permission from the government to stay in the United States.

No, came the answer from immigration officials, who concluded that the coup had not hurt the couple directly, and that they must go back.

Stunned, and with no idea what to do next, the Abrahams took a chance, as so many other frightened, desperate people have, on a powerful man they prayed would listen to their plea: Senator Edward M. Kennedy.

They wrote to Kennedy. Soon after, at the senator’s request, officials reexamined their appeal and granted them asylum.

‘‘We owe our lives to the senator,’’ Abebe Abraham recalled from his office at CMI Management, the thriving Virginia company he founded 20 years ago. ‘‘There is no doubt in my mind, if we went home, we wouldn’t be alive.’’

A legendary legislator, lauded for crossing party lines to build powerful alliances, Kennedy will be remembered as a tireless lawmaker. The government programs he helped create have changed millions of lives, granting health care to children, medical leave to families, and higher wages to blue collar workers. But behind the scenes, working quietly but just as doggedly, the Massachusetts senator and his staff labored to fix wrongs done to individual Americans, both his constituents and others who sought help, often with life-altering consequences.

When a grieving, frustrated Julie Primeau was repeatedly rebuffed by federal investigators as she tried to learn the circumstances of her brother’s death, Kennedy demanded the reports on his diving accident and handed them over to the grateful Fitchburg woman. When Lauren Stanford, a Plymouth teenager with juvenile diabetes, wrote him a letter asking him to support stem cell research, Kennedy became her pen pal and invited her to testify at a Senate hearing.

‘‘She’s my kid and she’s special to me, but she is one of millions of people who need the attention of the US government, and for her to have gotten it the way she has is unbelievable,’’ said Moira McCarthy Stanford, Lauren’s mother. ‘‘For her to be heard the way she’s been heard has instilled in her a respect for public service that will live forever.’’

Because of the personal tragedies he weathered, Kennedy was widely seen as a leader with deep reserves of empathy, who understood loss and suffering firsthand. His own struggles made him human to his legions of supporters, who drew hope and strength from his long perseverance through the loss of family members, career-altering public disgrace, and, most recently, his battle with brain cancer.

Fred Fay, a disability rights activist from Concord who broke his neck and was paralyzed in 1961, said he felt a close connection to Kennedy, who suffered serious injuries of his own, and lifelong back pain, as the result of a 1964 plane crash. A leading supporter of the Americans With Disabilities Act, Kennedy worked closely with Fay, and visited him at his home, where the two men shared coffee, muffins, and strategies for coping with physical limitations.

‘‘He came back from so much that would have made other people give up on themselves,’’ Fay said. ‘‘He set a pattern over many years of being a real survivor, someone who comes back from challenge … He was a very compassionate man.’’

His compassion rarely ended with a single gesture. When a terrified father called Kennedy’s office in 1987 and said his son could not get access to the latest cancer drug, the senator’s staff intervened on his behalf. When the drug could not save the young man and he was sent home to die, his father called Kennedy again, distraught over the uncomfortable, hand-cranked bed the VA hospital provided. The next day, an electric bed arrived.

Kennedy befriended Brian and Alma Hart of Bedford in November 2003, after their son John was killed in Iraq. Told it would be a six-week wait to bury him at Arlington National Cemetery, they appealed to Kennedy, who helped cut the wait in half. The senator attended the funeral of the 20-year-old soldier, and listened in a conference room nearby as a stricken Brian Hart voiced his terrible suspicion that better equipment could have saved his son’s life.

Then Kennedy went to war in Congress, fighting for and winning huge advances in funding for protective body armor and armored vehicles. Production of armored Humvees climbed from 800 to 10,000 a year; previously 1 or 2 percent of all vehicles, they became standard equipment. Ballistic plates, used in body armor to stop bullets, were issued to every soldier; previously, one third of the troops in Iraq had such plates.

‘‘It gives some meaning to our son’s death,’’ Brian Hart said. ‘‘It’s a legacy for him … Undoubtably, several thousand lives have been saved.’’

On Sept. 11, 2001, Kennedy famously called every Massachusetts family who lost a member and offered his help. Cindy McGinty, whose husband, Mike, was killed on that day, soon learned the senator really meant it, when she lamented the tangle of red tape she faced in the aftermath, and he took immediate action, creating an advocate program to help victims’ families.

Kennedy never spoke publicly about the help he gave them. ‘‘We talk about it,’’ said McGinty. ‘‘He downplayed it.’’

Every year that followed, the senator contacted her on the anniversary of the tragedy, and sometimes more often, to check on her and her children, said McGinty.

‘‘I really wondered how I would ever go on, and he’s been such a role model,’’ she said. ‘‘He taught me how to put one foot in front of the other, and do for other people … I really think that he’s my hero.’’

For the Abrahams, the Ethiopian couple whose lives unfolded in America because of Kennedy’s help, the senator became a symbol of all the best qualities of their adopted country. His presence in the Senate made them feel secure, Abe Abraham said, that those ideals, such as equal rights, would be upheld.

The couple’s daughter, 27, runs her own successful business in Virginia, and their son, a recent Yale graduate, works at the White House as a legislative assistant.

His children, and the children of other successful immigrants aided by Kennedy, will carry on the senator’s commitment and his vision, said Abe Abraham.

‘‘We feel close to the values he stands for,’’ he said.

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