Meet Kia Scherr, a peace entrepreneur, whose husband & daughter were killed in 26/11 terror attacks
30 Nov, 2014, 1142 hrs IST By: Jyoti Pande Lavakare What do you do when you are living a peaceful life as a modern meditation retreat presenter on a farm in rural Virgina with your family, and your husband and daughter go to India on a spiritual mission over Thanksgiving and are shot and killed by terrorists? First, you try not to go insane with grief and rage. You turn to meditation to keep you strong through the horrific challenges you have to face to piece your life back together. You try and make sense of the tragedy, of the irony of your peace-loving family being shot by terror activists, of your life, or whatever is left of it. You try and understand the why of something that seems so senseless.And then, If you're Kia Scherr, you turn into a peace entrepreneur. You join hands to co-found a global peace initiative that works to bring tools of peace to education, business and government. You learn about the Global Terrorism Index Institute Peace and you devote your life to promoting non-aggression in every aspect of community from extremist activity down to behaviour in daily interactions. I met Scherr at a Goan Pub Crawl last week. The event is much more unique than it sounds, not just because it is run by two Brits, Sylvia and Greg Johnson, who have lived on and off in India for almost 18 years, but because it makes almost no money for anyone, is meant mainly for local expats (not for tourists), isn't advertised or marketed and yet refuses to die.
Out on a Mission Scherr looked pensive. On that day — November 14 — exactly six years ago, Scherr had dropped off her husband Alan and daughter Naomi to the Dulles International airport after a happy breakfast of eggs, toast and a last cup of coffee, which she mentions in a moving haiku on her blog (see Tragedy in Verse). Alan, an art professor turned-meditation-proponent and Naomi, their only daughter, homeschooled on a modern meditation sanctuary on the Blue Ridge mountains and readying to go away to a boarding school in New York, were excited about visiting India. "I dropped them at Dulles. We hung out there together for awhile, reluctant to say goodbye too quickly. Our last words were 'I love you, see you in two weeks'!" says Scherr. That was the last time she saw them alive. Scherr's calm when she speaks is almost unreal. She is willing to talk about her sorrow, her experiences in India, her work and her life — as long as it helps her mission of spreading peace. And she has the ability to stare out of the window of the bus we're travelling in for long periods of utter, reflective quiet, right in the middle of a drunken pub crawl, of which she is a willing participant. This is so much in alignment with her "Letter to a Terrorist," which was made into a short film with her reading the letter in which she says she feels "with each passing day, more alive than I have ever been". The film was banned in Pakistan and threats were made to those who wanted to show it, says Scherr. Her story was also included in Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu's latest book, The Book of Forgiving, which he wrote with his daughter. Scherr has developed a foundation programme to increase individual and collective awareness of the benefits of cooperation. "This establishes an operating system that will shift the way we teach, learn, do business and govern. It creates a new mindset based on respect, resulting in peace and tolerance in everyday life," she says. She calls this her Pocketbook of Peace. Instead of taking refuge in revengeful feelings, Scherr tried to make sense of the senselessness of what had happened to her. "When I was in Washington DC last year, I took a class at the Embassy of Pakistan called Understanding Pakistan. Voice of America interviewed me at the beginning and the end of the three-week session. They said this would air all over Pakistan," she said. "It was aired again this summer and I was contacted by a Pakistani educator who wanted to include the Pocketbook of Peace material into his program for teachers and students." According to Scherr, acceptance is key. So although she was in Goa with friends at an event last week that could only be rambunctious and fun, she was also very aware of the approaching anniversary of the day she "lost her life", as she puts it. "I am determined that my legacy from the loss of my life (which it was, to me) in India, is not to shun India. I have thought long and hard about why terrorism — and other forms of aggression even in every day life — happens. Clearly it is utopian to dream that I can change the world but small beginnings reach big ends," she said. This is from a mother whose daughter chose to come to India because she came across Mahatma Gandhi's saying "be the change you want to see". Step by Step Between 2008 and now, Scherr has made some progress. She has co-founded One Life Alliance. She has registered its Indian subsidiary and has among its trustees, people like Tushar Gandhi and corporate bigwigs, mainly from the Tata group of companies. She has won the support of Mumbai police commissioner Rakesh Maria, who is also chief of the anti-terrorism squad and was in charge of investigating the 26/11 attacks. She has tried (so far without success) to connect the Los Angeles police department to the Mumbai police through the US Consulate, which supports and encourages her work. She has collaborated with the Welingkar Institute of Management Development & Research on a 'Global Peace Initiative' to spread the message of peace and harmony to the world, which included walking a 'Peaceathon' with students of various schools and colleges well as an annual "Walk the Ramp." With this much already under her belt, she recently brought in Valerie Bowles (who has worked in India for four years as COO with law firm Amarchand & Mangaldas & Suresh A Shroff & Co) to help her consolidate her gains. This year, in addition to the fashion show with Welingkar, Scherr will moderate a panel discussion on the business of peace. Scherr believes violence has an economic cost, and when she discovered the Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP), a non-partisan, nonprofit think-tank working to shift the world's focus to peace as a positive, achievable, and tangible measure of human well-being and progress, she was delighted. India stands at 143 out of 162 in peace ranking, and one of Scherr's goals is to improve that ranking. "Research shows that countries with higher levels of peace tend to be more resilient to external shocks, whether economic, geopolitical, or natural disasters," says Scherr, quoting IEP's Pillars of Peace. To support this thesis, the IEP has calculated the cost of aggression through its Global Peace Index. This establishes the direct correlation between countries that have poor economic performance and high levels of violence. Funding Challenges Scherr realises she needs to do much more to build on her mission to grow a more peaceful culture across the globe, and currently funding is one of her challenges. One Life Alliance aims to create community projects and events run by young Indian adults and college students, supported by local business and government. The objective is to raise awareness and participation around the unified goal of peace to prevent violence in all forms at an early age. Scherr already has schools such as the Don Bosco chain and the Millennium School, Meerut, incorporating and improving her basic peace curriculum. A Teach for India (TFI) scholar has informally incorporated her Pocketbook of Peace in her classroom in Delhi with excellent feedback, which has encouraged Scherr to approach TFI to get them to add it to their formal curriculum. "We're planning to get in touch with TFI directly — so much needs to be done," says Bowles. In the meeting with Mumbai police commissioner Maria, in the first week of November, Scherr gave him a copy of her Pocketbook of Peace. She proposed a project to Raise the Mumbai Peace Index for Safety and Security by introducing peace practices from the book into police training. His response: "Yes, we need this. Let's do it," has encouraged her further. "He said we could do a test programme in south Mumbai. This is perfect since that is where the 26/11 attacks happened," she says. According to the 2014 IEP report released last week, which captures how 162 countries of the world rank according to the impact of terrorism, India ranks at number 6 on the Global Terrorism Index (GTI). India was at number 4 in the earlier ranking. "The GTI shows that the impact of terrorism in India has increased over the past decade, peaking in 2010. Efforts to counter this violence should target the factors associated with terrorism, such as group grievances, criminality, and state-sponsored violence, along with inclusive political processes," said Michelle Breslauer, vice-president, IEP, in an email from New York. "Looking at the charts, graphs and statistics on the GTI, we are forced to recognise that this is a reality that we are living with — and we are part of that reality. This research inspires me all the more to be more committed to be the opposite of a terrorist — to love like an extremist. Aggression will breed aggression. Kindness will breed kindness, respect will breed respect," says Scherr. "My family died in India, which is rated number 6 on the GTI. They spent the last 10 days of their lives here and those 10 days were happy days full of excitement and new experiences, says Scherr. "India did not terrorize my family. India gave my family some of the best experiences of their lives, especially my 13-year-old daughter who was travelling outside of the US for the first time. For this I will always be grateful to India and for that reason I am determined to give something back that will be of lasting value." (The writer is an independent columnist and writer)