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I Survived
All photos By Thomas Fricke
Creating Pathways

I Survived

They found a ray of light in the unthinkable dark. How three members of our University of Manitoba community who asked themselves ‘Why am I here?’ turned hardship into stories of hope, and changed national conversations.

By Katie Chalmers-Brooks
Arnold Popeski

Retired teacher Arnold Popeski is bragging about his grandkids. There’s the eldest girl who is thriving at university and the 13-year-old who excels at volleyball. The 16-year-old boy with his knack for bringing any design to life and the youngest who throws a ball like you’ve never seen.
“A natural athlete,” says Popeski [BSc/65, CertEd/67, BEd/69, MEd/73].

He’s a proud grandpa, father and husband of 50-plus years to wife Rose [BSc(Pharm)/67]. The knickknacks and artwork in his Winnipeg condo show a life well-lived: trip souvenirs, heirlooms, gifts from students. He spent a career championing kids who were falling through the cracks and helped develop a ground-breaking teaching structure that would leave no one behind.

At 74, Popeski says he feels grateful to be here.

“It was really important that we were able to help students so they wouldn’t quit on themselves.”
Arnold Popeski

“You look at life and say, ‘How lucky am I?’”

It could have all been over before it began.

Popeski was the sole survivor of 
a two-car head-on collision that took 
the lives of five U of M students on an
 otherwise sunny afternoon in June, 1963. He had just finished his science degree and he and his two best friends—Morton Stall and Sammy Corman—were celebrating their acceptance to medical school with a road trip to Los Angeles in his parents’ brand new Chevy.

He doesn’t remember what triggered the crash somewhere between Calgary and Banff or how it could be that travelling in the other car were three more U of M students, teammates of his on the university’s first Bison football squad.

Popeski was napping in the backseat when the impact sent him flying through the rear window, his head hitting the pavement and causing a cerebral hematoma. The brain injury left the aspiring doctor in a coma and when he awoke, a 20-year-old who could communicate only by eye blinks.

“Inside, I had a lot of rage,” says Popeski. “Lying in my bed in the hospital, being by myself, I thought, ‘You can’t remember what happened to you an hour ago, you can’t talk, you can’t walk. What are you ever going to achieve? What are you, a blob?’”

With the effects of brain injuries being so mysterious, especially then, doctors doubted Popeski could handle going back to university but he decided otherwise.

He started to re-train his brain. One of the first sentences Popeski committed to memory was from U.S. President John F. Kennedy that he found in a magazine while waiting for his physiotherapy appointment: “Yesterday’s headlines are not necessarily the chapter titles for tomorrow’s historians.”

It was the beginning of a long recovery, and even today he says his memory never fully recovered. “Life is about making adjustments. I’ve learned not to fight that.”

Popeski switched gears from medicine to teaching and went on to complete four degrees, including a master’s of education in learning disabilities. He says getting to know his own painful barriers helped him to better see the needs of others. He was among the first U of M education students to pursue disability studies and would go on to advocate for extra supports for students in the inner-city schools where he taught. In his first class at Churchill High School, several of the Grade 7 students were 17 or 18, having been held back two or three times.

“One was six-foot-tall in this little desk,” says Popeski.

How could their learning needs so consistently go unmet? Popeski helped to develop a support system in the early 1970s modelled after an approach he learned south of the border and he became one of the first six resource teachers in Manitoba. Eventually every school would have one.

“It was all new and exciting. Resource teacher—nobody even knew what it meant,” he says. “It was really important that we were able to help students so they wouldn’t quit on themselves.”

He also saw a way he could help people navigate the tornado of a brain injury and would share his story through the Manitoba Brain Injury Association, meeting with families personally hit. Popeski remembers one young woman who struggled with her new reality: Her fiancé wasn’t the same person he was before his accident. “Head injuries were not as well understood as they are today,” Popeski says. “I told her the worst thing you can do for him is pull away. It’s very difficult but it can be very rewarding for you—and him—if you stick it out. The possibilities are endless in terms of what that person could end up doing.”

Popeski describes his life before the accident as unchained; every- thing was easy.

“Almost too easy,” he says. “I’m not a fatalist. It’s not what happens to you that’s important. It’s what you do with what happens to you.”

Regine King

The Rwandan village where Regine King grew up sounds magical. It’s never too hot, never too cold. A green paradise high in the mountains on land rich with bananas and sweet potatoes.

“It’s the best place ever,” she says. “Ever.”

And then she smiles as if to acknowledge the dichotomy between her description and the world’s perception of her home country and what happened there in 1994.

“Rwanda is a very, very complex place,” she adds

It’s where King—a Tutsi—whispered promises to a greater power if only it would protect her from the Hutu’s machetes as she hid in the bushes. Where she pleaded to live so the story of her people wouldn’t die.

For the U of M social work professor, who was among the first to bring together victims and perpetrators post-genocide, Rwanda is where the best and worst collide.

When Rwandan Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, violence erupted and claimed 1 million people in 100 days.

King was on holiday from the National University of Rwanda where she was working toward her undergrad degree in psychology and education, and happened to miss her bus back to school the day before the genocide began. The university was targeted early on and no Tutsi students on campus were spared.

“To miss one small step and then find yourself alive…” King says. “I had that strong sense that I wasn’t going to die.”

The hunting of the Tutsis by the Hutus forced King’s family to run for three months, never knowing which of their own Hutu neighbours would turn on them by following political orders to kill all Tutsis.

“I had that strong sense that I wasn’t going to die.” Regine King

There were moments of pure madness—King lost two younger brothers, age 16 and 29—and moments of pure miracle. When her mother was cornered by Hutus, the lead attacker ordered the others to leave. He told them he would take her life while they carried on in search of others but instead he left her unharmed. “He told her, ‘You gave me very good banana beer one time,’” recalls King. “How do you explain that? It’s just the goodness that gets mixed up with evil.”

As an academic, King studies the “phenomenon” of this genocide, including the reconciliation that’s followed. Because she was one of the few educated Tutsi women left alive, she felt an even greater responsibility to help with the healing.

In the aftermath, she signed up for a session with Rwandese professor Simon Gasibirege who was bold enough to suggest Hutus and Tutsis come together to talk.

“I looked at him and thought he must be crazy,” she says.

But King was intrigued and then “hooked”, so much so she became the first facilitator of this model for World Vision Rwanda and would eventually explore it in great detail with her thesis, A foolish adventure in a country that went mad: Healing psychosocial suffering in post-genocide Rwanda.

How exactly could people go from prey and predator back to neighbour?

King has seen it and says it comes down to individuals having a “hunger for change” and then taking action with small gestures: a Tutsi family letting their kids play with a Hutu child, or a Hutu inviting a Tutsi to their baby’s baptism.

At one reconciliation event in 2015 she watched hundreds of people pour into a stadium to share their stories. “It’s not ordered by the government. It’s grass- roots, driven by the people. These are poor people who are contributing two or three dollars each so they can organize an event and share their story publicly,” she says.

The key is that the sharing comes from both sides.

That seems to be the missing link, King says, when comparing the reconciliation happening in Rwanda to efforts in Canada to move forward from the harms against Indigenous peoples, which has been called a cultural genocide. Not enough non-Indigenous Canadians see themselves as necessary participants in the healing process, King says.

“There is a fear of people not wanting to…say anything that might not be politically correct but we need to hear those other stories. That is the lesson that I learned from being a participant and a witness to such processes in Rwanda.”

Earlier this year she went back to record more stories of this movement to share with other educators here, along with Indigenous leaders and everyday Canadians. It’s a modest effort but an important one as limited resources in Rwanda has meant little is being documented.

Of course there are still those who haven’t gotten beyond their anger at the betrayal—or the guilt for what they did.

“Can those people who are feeling ashamed…and feel ostracised, not knowing how to become a human again, will they be able to resist if another genocide was promoted?” King asks. “That’s the fear I think I share with many other Rwandans. Can this be repeated if we don’t do anything about it?”

King admits she doesn’t know why she survived—perhaps it was her stamina, her determination as the eldest sibling, or simple luck.

“There is a mystery in every life that we don’t fully understand.”

Donna Besel

In the black-and-white photo on the cover of Donna Besel’s book, there she is at 16 swimming with her horse in West Hawk Lake. The mare she trained and called Juniper Blaze is chest deep, and Besel [BA(Hons)/76] is diving off its back into the darkness of the meteor-made lake.

“The water is so clear,” she says. “It’s like looking into an abyss. It’s this huge deep, deep, dark hole.”

You feel the lake and the wilds of the boreal forest in the Manitoba author’s first book, Lessons from a Nude Man. Her collection of stories earned accolades and made short lists for provincial and national literary prizes since it was published in 2015.

As a teen growing up in the Whiteshell, Besel would often seek the water. Swimming and its repetitive motion were an escape from what was happening at home.

For years, she and her sisters were sexually abused by their father.

Besel knows—right about now—you want to stop reading. She knows the topic is one of the last remaining taboos, one this country still isn’t comfortable discussing.

She wants to change that. In fact, the mother of two wants to publish a memoir she’s not sure anyone will be willing to read but that’s exactly why she’s so motivated.

“I call it the incest manuscript,” she says, intentionally adding to its recoil.

“You have something to say and you have a right to say it.” Donna Besel

Besel recently received a Canada Council grant for the project but can’t find a publisher to partner on a narrative about what incest does to a family and what happens after it’s exposed.

The manuscript opens with the line “Call me incested” and goes on to document the three-plus years and 26 legal delays that put the power with the perpetrator and left her feeling like Herman Melville’s Ishmael, clinging to a floating coffin.

Besel was just 14 when her mom died of a brain tumour, leaving their dad a widower with 10 kids. She didn’t report her childhood abuse to the police until she was in her 40s, once she found out it was repeating in younger members of her family. Her father pleaded guilty and received a conditional sentence in 1995.

“Sexual abuse is still really, really hard for people to talk about— especially when it’s in the family. Even the judges and the lawyers that we were dealing with, it was almost like they wanted to go like this”— Besel closes her eyes and covers her ears.

“If you can’t speak it, you’re unspeakable. Somehow, you’re lesser and that’s what I felt all the time. You can’t tell the truth…but if you can say it, it somehow makes it less horrible.” 
She wants to advance the conversation in the same way advocates have for mental illness over the last decade.
 Besel points to a decorative sign in her home in the tiny town of St. Georges: Tell your stories. You own everything that has happened to you. That’s what she teaches kids through the Manitoba Arts Council’s Artists in the Schools program. “I say to them, you have something to say and you have a right to say it,” insists Besel. “You’d see a Grade 2 child filling two sides of foolscap and want to keep writing.” Interesting things happen when educators invite kids to explore something beyond what they did on summer vacation. When she asked for a memory that is most vivid, she says they tell stories about “love and death and fairness, with profound awareness of how certain events can alter their lives forever.”

Besel has held workshops for fellow writers about how to use their craft to work through trauma, along with burn survivors and people who have lost a loved one to suicide.

“I give them the same advice I tell kids. It might make you cry but that’s okay. You can cry. We’ll wait for you to take a breath, and keep going,” she says. “I know a lot of writers wouldn’t agree with that. They prefer safe and entertaining.” Besel sees herself as a writer who is emotionally honest. One critic compared her willingness to reveal human nature’s ugly side to literary legend Alice Munro.

In 1999, Besel was hit with another great blow: Her husband died by suicide. In the months that followed she noticed how friends would cross the street to avoid an uncomfortable conversation.

“It’s almost tribal or superstitious. Folks seem to think that people who have bad stuff happening to them must have done something wrong,” she says. “The coping mechanisms I learned dealing with sexual abuse are the same I learned to deal with my husband’s suicide.”

Journaling helped her get through and ultimately made her want to be a writer.

Besel shares a piece of trivia behind her book’s cover image: It was taken by Malak Karsh, younger brother of famous photographer Yousuf and a talent in his own right, who just happened to be driving across Canada when he spotted the unlikely swimming duo—a loyal horse standing by a girl unafraid of going in head-first.

“I like that story,” she says.

 

 

 

4 comments on “I Survived

  1. Matt MacRae

    Well written stories of lives well lived. As a survivor of several accidents involving tractor trailers I endeavour to follow in your footsteps. Well done!!

    Reply
  2. Cecily Phelan. U of M '61

    Three very inspiring stories….inspiring lives.
    Thank you Arnold Popeski.
    Thank you Regine King?
    Thank you Donna Besel.

    Reply

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