Many married couples dream of traveling the world together. Perhaps few have left as much of an impact in their world travels as George Mason University’s Rita Chi-Ying Chung and Fred Bemak.
In their 17 years of marriage, they have traveled together and separately on counseling missions to more than 50 countries, aiding victims suffering from the Haiti earthquakes in 2010, Hurricane Katrina’s devastation on the Gulf Coast in 2005, the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami on Thailand in 2004, and the 2007 San Diego wildfires, which burned an estimated 1,500 houses in Southern California.
“In our field [of counseling], there is probably only a small percentage of professors who are this hands-on,” said Chung, who, like her husband, teaches counseling and development in GMU’s College of Education and Human Development.
“I don’t want to teach the next generation of counselors to be sitting around in an office; it needs to be hands-on.”
“We’ve worked far beyond refugees in our worldwide work,” Bemak said. “We worked with children who have been trafficked. I’ve worked with child soldiers.”
Chung said the couple’s work is not about cleanup or temporary assistance with aid relief in the wake of wars or natural disaster. Instead, they focus on psychological stability and support for those facing devastation and victims of long-term abuse.
Some places the couple has visited are remote and have not seen Westerners or whites before. For example, the professors worked in Burma in 2007 and 2008.
“We go out to these villages where they have never seen someone who is not Asian,” Chung said, referring to her husband. “And they’ll look at Fred and get really concerned and a child will come up [to him] and say, ‘Are you okay? Are you sick or something?’ ”
Although that interaction was comical, most are not.
In Burma, “a mother came running up to me and said, ‘I no longer beat my kids five times a day. I only beat them two times a day.’ . . . It’s progress,” Chung said. “I would talk to the child about being beaten, and he wouldn’t just talk about the physical hurt, but the hurt in his heart. . . . It’s just important to instill hope in people.”
In recognition of their lifetime of service, the American Counseling Association, a national professional and education organization, will award Bemak and Chung its highest honors. This month, Chung will receive the Gilbert and Kathleen Wrenn Humanitarian and Caring Person Award, which was awarded to Bemak in 2011. Bemak will receive the Kitty Cole Human Rights Award, previously bestowed on Chung in 2012.
“The awards are kind of a surprise to us because our work isn’t about the rewards,” Bemak said. “We’ve been doing this work to do the work and give back.”
“My colleagues in the field have really looked at my work and our work. . . . I’m totally speechless,” Chung said.
Chung and Bemak have no plans of stopping. In July, they plan to visit South Dakota’s Lakota tribe on the Pine Ridge or Oglala Indian Reservation.
The couple received permission from the reservation’s leadership to visit for a few weeks. They will provide counseling support for the community, which has been plagued with poverty, substance abuse and high suicide rates.
“We’re at the point in our careers where we have a lot of skills and experience, and we want to give back,” Bemak said.
Their students said they are in awe of the couple’s work in the field.
“Dr. Chung and Dr. Bemak’s accomplishments are beyond anything that could be written on paper,” said Casey Quigley, who graduated from GMU with a master’s in counseling and development in a community agency in May and works with mentally ill adults in Arlington County. “They have traveled all over the world to the poorest of countries, and they have provided mental-health services that would not have been provided otherwise. They are fearless.”
Student Tiffany J. Jones, who graduates in May, said: “Chung and Bemak are the professors of the counseling program. They are the radical professors who do things their way. . . . They are the professors who don’t just assign you book work, but encourage you to engage in experiential learning activities. . . . They are the backbone of Mason’s counseling program. Without them, the program would be average.”
Chung grew up in a household in which immigrants flowed in and out like guests in a hotel.
“Both of my parents were refugees in World War II who immigrated” to New Zealand, she said. “Our home was sort of a hotel for refugees.”
Chung’s parents fled China after the Japanese bombed China’s southern province. Chung, who grew up in New Zealand, said fellow Chinese immigrants would stay with her family in Wellington.
“My interest was in immigrants and refugees,” said Chung, who has followed her childhood experiences with a career in aiding those displaced by natural disasters and conflicts. “In some ways, it was sort of ingrained in me as a child.”
Bemak had a very different childhood, one also filled with experiences that would shape his interest in helping others.
“I grew up in a household that cared about civil rights,” said Bemak, who spent his childhood in New York state and Massachusetts.
As a psychology major in graduate school, Bemak worked for the U.S. Department of Education’s Upward Bound program, a college-prep support program for high school students from low-income families or those who would be the first in their family to attend college.
“I was a summer counselor, and we were bringing in African Americans, Latinos and poor white students,” Bemak said. “We were trying to help low-income, at-risk youth become college bound.”
The professors met during a conference at Harvard University on global issues such as working with refugees and mental health. Despite the small, invitation-only crowd of about 40 professionals, Chung said, “I didn’t meet Fred until the last day, coming down the elevator.”
At another convention, Bemak was inspired to create Counselors Without Borders, a nonprofit organization that provides humanitarian counseling in post-disaster emergency situations.
“We were sitting in the audience, and someone asked, ‘How many of you have been to New Orleans’ post Katrina?” Bemak said. “Only a few hands were up, . . . and people were telling about their work helping with the cleanup. I was thinking, we have all these skills.”
In the aftermath of Katrina, Bemak and Chung took a team of 16 people to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi to counsel survivors.
“We’re training people and building capacity so other people can do counseling that heals people,” Bemak said, adding that his group counseled about 1,100 people after Katrina. “After they’ve got some ground under their feet, they need someone to talk to about healing.”
Students have gone with Bemak and Chung on Counselors Without Borders missions.
“One hundred percent of our students have said those trips have been life transforming,” Bemak said.
Chung said that even though she has helped others through counseling for many years, one thing still surprises her.
“One of the things that I’m always amazed in is the level of resiliency of these refugees,” she said. Women who have been trafficked for sex, she said, have demonstrated the ability to forgive their trespassers. “I’ve learned about the capacity for forgiveness.”