Michael Stark shares his unique experiences on having the role as a brother to children from around the globe as part of an international children’s medical program. Through his memories of diversity, connectivity, and fostering relationships with his siblings across the globe, Michael emphasizes the importance of empathy and cultivating belonging. He also serves as an Advisory Board member for MALA.
This story was recorded in partnership with MALA and StoryCorps. The story was produced by Sydney Jarol from StoryCorps Chicago.
“My childhood was very unique, we were one of the very first families in the West to adopt from China when they opened up to Americans to come in. Once you have your adoption license, you also have a foster parenting license. And after we took Nicki in, it was about a year later when my mom came to us and said, “how would you guys feel about more kids?” And we had a family meeting, we sat and we talked about it. And it was unanimous, so we as a family got involved with this program called, “Healing the Children.” This sort of hybrid program that partnered with organizations like “Doctors without Borders,” and other kind of similar groups.
So whenever they would come across a kid they couldn’t help, they would give us a call. And we would tee up medical care, as well as visas and these children would come live with us here in Chicago while they underwent pediatric medical care. Experiencing life with these kids was just such a fascinating thing to be a part of and to see the clashing of cultures and the sharing of ideas. It taught me at a very early age that there’s common ground to be found with anybody, if you’re willing to put in the effort to get to know them and to understand them. And you know the hardest part was often sending them back, once the medical treatment was over because the visas were only good for medical. They would have to go home, so another kid from that country could come over. It’s almost like I’ve got all these brothers and sisters out there in the world, there’s so many and they all mean something to me and have a special place in my heart.
But there was one that I think was the most impactful for me, it was the only time I ever had an older brother. I was sixteen years old, and I had a foster brother for about a year and a half named Bamudu, and he was from Gambia and he was Muslim. My upbringing being so different, to spend a year and a half sharing a room with a six foot eight, black Muslim man who is a couple years older than me – it opened my eyes and my mind to so many things. I remember the first night he arrived, my mom made these fantastic ribs on the grill and we sit down and we’re eating and Bamudu joins us for dinner. And he is just chowing down on these ribs, and he absolutely loves them and he goes, “These are the best ribs I’ve ever had!” And my mom goes, “Oh Bamudu, those are pork ribs!” And he was so taken aback, but it broke the ice with us and our family in such a funny way. So he puts his ribs away, and he’s like, “Oh don’t worry about it, we’re all good it was a mistake.” And he goes to the fridge and pulls out the leftover pizza from last night and it was sausage pizza. We didn’t have the heart to tell him that it was also pork.
And when you find yourself in that situation, you just figure it out and you find a way and you laugh and you smile and you enjoy each other’s company and you support each other. It was really hard because Bamudu did not want to go back, he actually ended up running away. And it was really a powerful thing, because he decided to come back because that visa was only good for one kid from his country at a time. He didn’t want to deprive another kid from where he was from in Gambia of the treatment and all these positive experiences he had. And I have not spoken to him since that day he got on the plane, and I hope he’s doing alright. I’m sure he is given the type of person that he was. But people come and go from your life, and I think they’re meant to for a reason in many ways and we’ve all got lessons to learn. I am so grateful for the lessons him and I were able to teach each other and for the perspective we shared. He was the best big brother I’ve ever had.”