When Bystanders Should Become Rescuers – A True Story

This is a guest column from Jay Remer about bystanders and bullying

I have decided to share a story that reflects the important role bystanders can play in resolving untenable situations. For one Christmas over twenty years ago, my partner and I decided to travel to a distant island to learn to scuba dive. We had never been to this island and looked forward to our adventure. This island was not easy to reach, and the airport affords one of the most challenging landing strips one is likely to find. Once safely on the ground we proceeded to our hotel, perched high up on a mountain overlooking the entire island.

Our hosts, a retired US Army officer and his beautiful Filipino wife warmly welcomed us. We settled into our comfortable room and set off to enroll in our scuba course. After we returned, we enjoyed a delicious lunch served by a lovely young woman and her husband. Her name was Tess; his was Manny. She was the niece of the proprietors and had migrated half way around the world with her husband for the exciting opportunity to have full time work. This move required them leaving their two young daughters behind. Since this was to be a short-term arrangement, the benefits would outweigh the sad separation, or so they hoped. 

After dinner each evening, we would relax with a glass of wine at the small bar, where Manny was bartender. Over the course of the week we were there, we became close friends with this couple and they shared their story with us.

It quickly became apparent to this young couple that the promises of financial opportunity and return to their homeland was all a myth. In essence, they were being held against their will, with their passports and monies earned unavailable to them. For us to hear this tale of horror was unsettling to say the least.

That night my partner and I discussed the situation. We were bystanders to a situation that needed to be seriously changed. We agreed that we wanted to help this young couple escape from this nightmare. The following evening we went to the bar as usual and asked Manny if they would like our assistance. They quickly agreed. Having never been involved in such a rescue operation, we agreed that the authorities would need to be involved. I phoned the customs office the next day and explained exactly what was going on. The Chief Customs Officer could not have been more helpful. We made a plan that involved securing plane tickets, which we purchased. For our own safety, the plan was scheduled to unfold a day or two after we left the island to return home.

In the early morning hours, the police arrived at the hotel to pick up the young couple. The police demanded the return of the passports and any outstanding wages. Once this was accomplished, under much resistance on the part of the proprietors, the police escort delivered the couple to the airport. However this whole surprise did not sit well with the proprietors who followed the couple to the airport. Thankfully, the police detained them after they made a real scene at the airport, and one of them spent time in jail.

Special arrangements were made for the young couple to stay overnight in Miami. They were not US citizens so clearing customs without a special visa would have been impossible. Thanks to the unprecedented cooperation from the Customs Departments, all went off without a hitch. The young couple returned to the Philippines and were reunited with their family. They went on to have a son a year later whom they named Jay in appreciation of the rescue from a very bad situation.

Stories like this are unusual. However what this one illustrates is that people who are not immediately involved, i.e. bystanders, can step in and save people from a dangerous situation. What can this mean for your community? By opening our eyes and becoming more aware of what is going on around us, we can become community watchdogs. Bystanders are in fact witnesses who are faced with a choice – to help or not to help. Our communities can only become stronger when we as bystanders make the choice to become rescuers. We cannot always handle situations ourselves; so calling in the authorities when appropriate is important and wise.

I have no idea what might have happened had we not intervened. The choice to help was an easy one for us. What would you have done? More importantly, what will your choice be when you learn about a bad situation and can change the situation? How would you want a bystander to act if you were in a dangerous spot? The Golden Rule reminds us of what is the right thing to do.