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Keystone Human Services touches people worldwide

June 23, 2010

One of the worst terrorist attacks the world has ever experienced occurred Sept. 1, 2004 in the city of Beslan, in the republic of North Ossetia, which is in the North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation.

The events of the “siege of Beslan,” as it has come to be known, might seem far removed from central Pennsylvania, but they have a direct and inspiring connection to our region.

When armed Ingush and Chechen militants attacked School No. 1 in Beslan, demanding Russians end their war to crush rebels in the Russian Federation Republic of Chechnya, I was working with colleagues from both areas at Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty in Prague.

It’s fair to say that Chechens and Russians were mortified that militants had resorted to attacking young children and their teachers.

The militants stormed the school and crowded more than 1,100 people, including an estimated 777 children, into the school’s gym.

They held them hostage for three days as the world watched and hoped for a happy ending. The ending was not happy, however. Bombs exploded, gun battles erupted and the building was engulfed in fire.

Then, Russian troops stormed the building, leaving 334 people dead, including 186 children. Inside our offices in Prague, Chechens and Russians with relatives and friends in the region cursed, screamed, cried and joined the Iraqis, Iranians and Afghanis in grieving for the mounting number of dead children and distraught parents worldwide.

It’s not hard to imagine the agony that enveloped the city of Beslan and the unbearable emotional trauma that plagued the adults and children who survived the ordeal.

For the survivors, and especially the inconsolable parents who waited outside the school only to learn their children were dead, the aftermath was almost as much of a nightmare as the three days of terror.

The children who survived were tormented by the memories of their friends and teachers gunned down or burned in the mayhem that ended the ordeal.

This small Chechen town was ill-equipped to handle the aftermath of such a major tragedy in which children be scarred for their entire lives with memories of brutality.

In fact, only a few organizations in the world were able to provide the kind of mental health services the children of Beslan needed. One of them was Keystone Human Services International, a branch of Keystone Human Services here in Harrisburg.

Keystone Human Services also is one of the organizations under the umbrella of PAR, a statewide organization that provides services to people with intellectual disabilities.

Not only was Keystone able to provide mental health services immediately after the tragedy, but it has continued to support the grief-stricken families and children of Beslan with desperately needed psychological services and emotional support, thanks to grants from international aid organizations and individual donors.

As important as Keystone’s work in Beslan is, it is only one of many projects that Keystone has initiated in places such as Romania, Moldova, and Azerbaijan in its mission to “advance the human spirit” by advocating for the rights of people with intellectual disabilities.

In parts of the world still reeling from the residue of communism, this is indeed a daunting challenge, especially when it confronts age-old axioms that relegate people with mental retardation or autism to lives behind the cold, grey walls of institutions.

It is remarkable, and should be a source of pride, that a global leader in protecting the rights of people of all intellectual abilities is headquartered on Pine Street, a short walk from Strawberry Square.

Through its work overseas, Keystone has been able to help people around the world share its vision that “all human life is sacred, having equal and unconditional value.”

It works with organizations and with government officials inside countries to help create environments where people of all backgrounds and intellectual abilities can prosper and lead productive lives. While this vision might seem like common sense to Americans living in the 21st century, it was not always so, even in this country. It is still not so in many places.

Keystone is a clear example of this region’s talent, commitment and expertise that is recognized in the global arena. It is enriching our own communities as well as the lives of millions of people around the world.

Joyce Davis is a veteran foreign correspondent and founder of the World Affairs Council of Harrisburg. She is writing a monthly column for The Patriot-News.

This article was originally published on and appears here courtesy of The Patriot-News.

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