CORNER BROOK On Sept. 11, 2001, Martin Mburu boarded a plane at Heathrow Airport in London with his six-year-old nephew Raphael, excited to reunite the boy with his father in Washington, D.C.
Raphael's birthday was months away, but his anxiously awaiting family in the United States had planned a big birthday party anyway because they had not seen him in such a long time.
The celebration would have to wait when terrorist attacks in the United States forced the closure of American air space during their flight. The Mburus and their fellow passengers knew no details of what had happened.
All they knew was their plane had been diverted to Newfoundland, some strange place they had never heard of.
In the days that followed, they and the other frightened and dismayed passengers would get an unexpected and unforgettable lesson in the geography and culture of western Newfoundland that would restore their faith in humanity.
As the years went by, Martin Mburu always felt a deep connection to the comforting refuge they were given during such an uncertain time. He felt compelled to give something back.
So, six years ago, he and his wife began working on a special project.
Four years ago, on Juja Farm Road, at the foot of Kilimambogo Mountain, around 38 kilometres outside of Nairobi, Kenya, the doors opened at a new yellow and green high school for boys aged 14 to 18.
It is called The Corner Brook School and is Mburu's gesture of thanks to the people who helped the stranded passengers of 9-11.
“I think we took the longest two-day trip anyone has ever taken to Corner Brook,” joked Mburu in a phone interview from Paris, France, where he was recently on a business trip.
“But, for me, it was the most symbolic journey I have ever taken with a boy and I wanted to do something for the young boys back home in Africa in the name of Corner Brook.”
The Latin motto that is proudly displayed on the school’s crest reads “semper paratus,” which translates into English as “always prepared.”
It was the readiness of Corner Brook and the entire region under such unbelievable circumstances that impressed upon Mburu. After 17 worrying hours confined to their plane, not knowing where they were or even if they were safe themselves, the passengers encountered a welcome that was just confounding in a good way.
“We became like babies and we had parents,” said Mburu of the incredible outpouring of concern and generosity shown towards them.
Mburu and Raphael were paired up in the Comfort Inn in Corner Brook with Ife Akintunde, who was travelling from his home in the United Kingdom to visit his sister in Washington.
Like Mburu, he too had a young travelling companion in his care — his five-year-old niece Kanyinsola Ajayi— and welcomed all the assistance he could get.
Both men said the children were, thankfully, no trouble at all during the entire ordeal.
A scholar of international politics, Akintunde knew of the al-Qaida terrorist group and had grave concerns about the worldwide fallout resulting from its attacks.
He too was left in awe at the readiness and willingness of the Corner Brook community, noting that the hastily mustered preparation seemed to him like it had taken months of planning and fund-raising.
“Everything was so organized,” said Akintunde from his home in the U.K. “I didn’t feel it at any time that Corner Brook was not ready for us. There was friendliness and welcoming coming from everyone.”
Among the frontline responders at the local level was Jacqueline Carey, who was working as a social worker with Child, Family and Youth Services in Corner Brook at the time. Carey was assigned to the plane on which Mburu, Akintunde and their little companions were travelling on.
The visitors were amazed at the treatment they received from Carey, who took them shopping and sight-seeing in the Bay of Islands, not to mention just hang out with them and educate them about the region they had previously known nothing about. Even Carey’s father, Tom, joined them on their excursions and discussions.
When Mburu and Akintunde made contact with their own families, they wanted to know where they were and if it was safe there. Their families were quickly reassured they could not be in a better place under such circumstances.
In fact, when it finally came time to get back on the plane and fly out of Stephenville there was still a lot of instability in the world and Mburu and Akintunde would have welcomed staying in Corner Brook’s safe embrace just a little longer.
Carey, who maintained occasional correspondence with Akintunde since, only found out about the school earlier this month when she and Akintunde were exchanging emails for the first time in several years. Mburu had contacted Akintunde, asking him if he knew how to reach her so he could tell her about the project.
She was floored to hear what Mburu had done.
“I can’t believe we have a school outside the biggest city in Kenya named after Corner Brook,” said Carey. “I knew we had made friends, but I had no idea that they really loved it here so much.”
It was particularly heartwarming for Carey to see Corner Brook get recognized for its role in the 9-11 tragedy since the accolades for the Newfoundland response have mostly gone to Gander and other places, which have their own amazing stories.
“In the midst of a world tragedy and an event coloured by evil, we were here doing our job making friendships with people from all over the world and helping people out,” she said. “I know it was a wonderful experience for me.”
Carey is hoping to some day make travel plans to visit The Corner Brook School.
Akintunde has not visited the school yet either, but was so happy to hear Mburu had built it. The two men have not seen each other since that flight in 2001, but plan to reunite later this year.
“I would love to be part of what’s happening at that school,” he said.