PEOPLE IN YOUR NEIGHBORHOOD: Torrey Pines Rotary Club president Henri Migala
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Henri Migala, president of the Torrey Pines Rotary Club, has a profound history of giving back to not only his community, but the world.
Most recently director of the UC San Diego International House, Migala helped vaccinate children against polio in Nepal with the UN World Health Organization, fed the hungry as a program officer for Project Concern International and — more recently with the Eagles of the Desert — located the remains of eight migrants who died attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border.
The Light sat down with Migala recently over lunch at Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery, where he presides over Torrey Pines’ monthly meetings, to find out what makes him tick.
You were born in Paris, then raised in Bangkok until you were nine. Your mind was thinking internationally at an unusually young age.
“My mom was born and raised in a Polish household in France. My dad was Polish and always spoke Polish to my mom. My mom always answered in French. When you came into our house, you weren’t in the United States anymore. I’m not sure where you were, but you weren’t in the United States. And there’s a whole subculture of kids who grew up like I did called third-culture children. They’re foreign-service kids, embassy kids, military kids who lived in so many places, none of them is really home.”
What was your first experience living in America like?
“My dad had a job designing the military bases for the U.S. Army and Air Force Exchange Service, for which Bangkok was the Asian headquarters. But the global headquarters was in Dallas, so we moved from Bangkok to rural Texas. Seven of us lived in a three-bedroom house. My parents got a room, my sister got a room, and my four brothers and I all slept on the floor under one sheet. That’s all we had money for. So we went from living a really nice life in Bangkok to that.”
The culture shock must have been equally intense.
“It was like ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’ You could stand on our roof and see five or six houses to the horizon. And for a family that didn’t speak English, that was not an easy transition. I used to have to run to school because the local kids would try to beat me up, and then I’d have to run home. My dad once planted trees around our house and when we got up in the morning, they were all chopped down and swastikas spray-painted all over our house.”
Why swastikas? Did they assume you were Jewish?
“We didn’t speak English, so they figured we had to be German. My dad still lives in the same house. They decided to stay there. My mom said, ‘This is the house I raised my family in, we’re going to keep this house forever.’ She was a very old-world Catholic. My mother said her rosary (prayers) every day, she went to Mass every day.”
And you originally wanted to be a priest.
“I started my undergraduate studies in the Catholic seminary. My dad was stationed in Munich at the time. I went to go visit him in the summer, and I just stayed there for seven years. I’m not sure it was my desire to end up in the seminary, as much as it was the path of least resistance, in terms of options.”
So you took your own route to charity work without religion as a framework.
“After I left the seminary, I wanted to be an anthropologist. But I finished all my coursework in graduate school in archaeology before I even realized that I didn’t want to work with dead people or things. If I was going to work this hard, I wanted somebody to benefit from my efforts. There had to be some socially redeeming benefit.
So my thesis director had me talk to their cultural anthropologist, who was an ex-priest from Bolivia. And he asked if I wanted to study this really remote tribe in the Bolivian Andes that nobody knew much about, as part of my graduate thesis. How do they socially organize themselves? How do they adapt to the land? How does their annual religious calendar function? And how do different diseases affect them and what kind of ethno-botanical remedies do they have to treat them?
So I studied Spanish and a spent a year there, from 1989 to 1990, under the auspices of the Bolivian Ministry of Health. And while I was there, I got involved in a lot of humanitarian work.”
What surprised you the most about that experience?
“You read National Geographic, you watch ‘Indiana Jones’ movies and you think, ‘Being an anthropologist is going to be so cool.’ I get down there, the truck drops me off and leaves, and everybody forms a circle looking at me. They didn’t want me there. These people didn’t know why I was there or who I was. They didn’t even know they were in Bolivia. They’d never been outside their village. The first few weeks I was there, kids would throw rocks at me — just like when I was a kid in Texas.
But slowly, over time, women would bring their sick children to me and ask if I could help. In developed countries, most people die of chronic diseases. In underdeveloped countries, a lot of people die of childhood diseases, because they don’t have vaccinations or clean water. I remember this mother tied a dirty rag around her child’s hand, to cover a very bad burn, and I had to remove it and clean the wound, but the skin had grown around the rag. I will never forget having to do that.
Instead of just being a passive researcher, I really got much more involved in the dynamics of what was affecting this community. So, as difficult as it was to feel a sense of place when I got there, it was that difficult to leave a year later. They cried, I cried. But it’s nice to know, no matter how bad my life gets, there’s this little village I can go to and they’ll probably give me a hut!”
How did you end up in San Diego?
“I was recruited by UCSD and Scripps Chula Vista Hospital, who were starting a family-practice residency in the South Bay to get doctors along the border. They brought me from Texas, where I was involved in a similar program, to help start theirs. Then, in 2000, my colleagues at the U.N. asked if I wanted to be involved in polio eradication in Nepal, part of a program called Stop Transmission of Polio. My wife was pregnant at the time, and she said if I ever wanted to work internationally again, now’s the time to do it. So I went there and a team of five of us worked with the Ministry of Health, as well as with all the rural hospitals and clinics, to recruit, educate and train hundreds of vaccination teams. Together, we vaccinated five million children in three days. I’m very proud to say that Nepal, like most countries in the world, is totally polio-free.”
What do you think motivates you?
“That’s a very good question. I would feel uneasy if my life were simply — although I dream of it all the time — to get a sailboat and live in the Caribbean. That would not fulfill the need I have to be consequential. I think, ultimately, that’s what’s important to me is to be consequential. I want to make somebody’s life easier or better or fight social injustice wherever it happens to be.
When I was working as an archaeologist in Jamaica, one day, I went to Kingston because I wanted to get a newspaper. So I walked up the stairs to this beautiful hotel and these doormen, who were dressed like Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, opened the door, stepped aside and let me through. But I was just in this really far-off archaeological site and I was wearing a dirty T-shirt and shorts. I had no right being let in there dressed like that. Meantime, these same guys were giving a hard time to a couple of Jamaicans dressed in business suits — not letting them in because they didn’t know what their business was.
I’ve lived in enough places to realize what it means, by total accident of nature, to be born a white male on this planet, and the privileges that come with it. And to me, when you are exposed to that kind of privilege, it comes hand in hand with an obligation. I have an obligation to give back for the simple reason that I have, through no accomplishment of my own, access to privilege and opportunity.”
How did you first get involved with the Rotary Club? Was it through their work with polio eradication?
“As a matter of fact, they funded the vaccines we used in Nepal, and I knew that at the time. But I’m not a club-joiner. I didn’t get involved until I was the executive dean at Cuyamaca College for six years. My president wanted me to be a member of the local Rotary Club. But, because of my work with polio eradication, I tried to visit as many other Rotary Clubs as possible to explain to them about my work. Most of them supported polio eradication, but didn’t know how it worked.
And when I spoke to Torrey Pines Rotary — which was right across the street from where I worked (as the director of UC San Diego’s International House) — I just really liked the members I got to know. There’s this one ex-Navy guy who looks kind of frightening. He and his Special Forces buddies chip in a bunch of money, buy pizzas and feed the homeless at Christmas. He could have easily come to the Rotary for that, but he didn’t want anyone to know he was doing it. That’s the kind of people who make up this club — people who just want to do good, but not for any recognition.”
What’s next on your humanitarian radar?
“I do this work searching for migrants with the Eagles of the Desert, and it upsets me how we’re separating families at the border and caging children in detention centers. Our country — you, me, all of us — are engaged in what I think are such crimes against humanity. And I’m watching it happen and, as much as it angers me, I’m not doing anything about it. So I want to figure out how to do something about it.”