Meet Todd Shea, affectionately known as “Disaster Man.” An American Muslim convert on a mission. When a natural disaster strikes, Todd heads for the danger zone, with his prized guitar and a small bag of basics. This month, he was working in the Philippines to help rescue children affected by typhoon Haiyan. In previous years, he joined aid workers in Japan and Indonesia, both struck by tsunami disasters, though his first mission was in New York City, where he first learned how to work on the ground with victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Todd is a burly man with indigo blue eyes, reddish-brown sugar hair, a scratchy beard, rosy cheeks, and a wide smile. Born in the state of Maryland, Todd had an unstable upbringing. His mother died when he was twelve years old. At a young age, he dropped out of school and was sent to juvenile prison. “That was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he told me. “I had to retake all my classes and it forced me to study so I could graduate from high school.”
But books were never his fortitude. Instead, Todd learned how to play the guitar, performing at local and national events. Best of all, he sings to children in disaster to lift their spirits. “There’s nothing like the sound of music,” he said, as his voice rises to “Little Feet,” a song he wrote long ago for his son, Justin.
“Why Pakistan?” I asked with wonder. The American media had reduced Pakistan to stereotypes and sound bites. The most dangerous country in the world. A tribal jungle perfectly situated for the Taliban, tyrants and thugs. For most Americans, Pakistan is identified with the capture of Bin Laden, who was once perched in the beautiful town of Abbottabad, where I was happy to be earlier this year (Abbottabad is a hidden jewel surrounded by dense woods, ever-deepening snow, and forbidding slopes).
Todd continued, “I had just come back from helping victims in Hurricane Katrina in Louisiana. The same day, literally five minutes after my return from Katrina, I turned on the television and saw the earthquake in Pakistan. I called the Pakistan Embassy [in Washington, D.C.] and joined a medical team at Georgetown University that was heading for Pakistan. I didn’t know where or what this place was at the time, but I knew I had to go.”
In the foothills, Todd created Comprehensive Disaster Response Services (CDRS) to provide free medical services to villagers in the Kashmir valley. Almost ten years later, Todd has expanded his network and relief efforts to major cities and towns, including a hospital he manages in Swat, the same district where the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousufzia survived shots by the Taliban. “I can give free health care to children at a cost to donors of around two dollars per day,” he said.
While Todd operates out of Pakistan, he is a nomad, moving from one disaster to another. “I don’t think about what I need to do. I don’t plan for these things. I just go,” he told me. For ten years, I’ve watched Todd steer Pakistan-held Kashmir like a navigable river. Villagers in the valley labeled him the gora [white man] from Heaven. “I am in Pakistan doing what God intended me to do.”
In the jagged mountains, Todd discovered Islam, a religion he knew nothing about when he was growing up in the United States. “The people of Pakistan have changed me,” he said. He refers to their hospitality, honor, and heart-felt emotions. “I may have had very little growing up, but the children here have nearly nothing. I can’t leave them behind,” he said.
Humanitarian work comes naturally to Todd. Without a formal education, everything Todd knows about rebuilding and saving lives comes from first-hand, on-the-ground experience. Earlier, he told the New York Times, “Others are more qualified, but I’m the one who’s here.”
In disaster-affected areas, most people see Todd as an American first. “I don’t have to tell anyone I’m Muslim,” he said, his face glowing with pride. Todd doesn’t need an award for his service, though Pakistan granted him at least three honors. Nor does Todd need a house, a car, or a retirement plan. As an American Muslim convert changing lives, he is already living the American dream.
“Wherever I go, I hope that people see me as an American doing the right thing,” he said, smiling.
Featured image courtesy of Sam Howzit/Flickr.