When 77-year old “G. Walker” wrote to a Filipino boy named Timothy for the first time in January 2002, his message was simple. “I want to be your new pen pal,” the man who identified himself as a Texas resident wrote.
In some of the letters, he dropped subtle hints about his identity, for instance writing that “I got to go to the White House at Christmas time.”
But when Timothy was finally told after graduating who Walker was — former U.S. president George H.W. Bush — he was stunned, according to the charity.
Jim McGrath, a spokesman for the former president, who died Nov. 30 in Houston at age 94, confirmed the letters' authenticity in an email to The Washington Post.
“Not the least bit surprised,” McGrath wrote on Twitter, even though he said he had not previously been aware of the sponsorship.
When Bush began to sponsor Timothy, the boy was 7. Compassion International did not specify where he was living in the Philippines, but at the time the country was far poorer than it is today. The charity has lost touch with Timothy since he graduated from the program in 2012.
The revelation of the pen-pal letters illustrates the dedication of a former president whose “values and ethics seem centuries removed from today’s acrid political culture,” as The Post’s Karen Tumulty wrote in an obituary for Bush.
Less noticed, the political culture in 2018 has led to a revival of programs like the one Bush supported after 2001. Pen-pal correspondence is once again on the rise, as many Americans and citizens of other wealthy countries use it as a way to protest some of the negative sentiment toward outsiders that has made its way into the mainstream.
When the separation of migrant families along the U.S.-Mexico border stunned Americans earlier this year, pen-pal programs nationwide had a surge in participants. Not all of those projects require a monetary donation, and some merely focus on allowing participants to share an emotional bond with others, be it from immigration detention centers in the same country or from remote villages in Asia and Africa.
Variations also have appeared in European countries, including in France, where a nongovernmental organization collected 400 letters from refugees describing their lives. The letters were gathered in an “encyclopedia of migration” and made accessible to readers.
At the peak of the European refugee influx, the German NGO “One world” created a program in 2015 to send thousands of letters to refugee children worldwide on New Year’s Eve. “Photos, drawings and greetings are supposed to help children forget their surroundings for a moment,” the group wrote on its website.
Those messages have been especially powerful when sent by survivors of war themselves. The Geneva-headquartered charity CARE recently began a program that connects Syrian refugee children with survivors of World War II.
Not all letters sent to the United States or Europe were meant to be read only by their addressees, however.
One Syrian refugee child, Bana Alabed, gained a broad audience two years ago when she tweeted from the war-ravaged city of Aleppo, before escaping to Turkey with her family. Addressing President Trump in a letter last year, she wrote, “I couldn’t play in Aleppo, it was the city of death.”
“If you promise me you will do something for the children of Syria, I am already your new friend,” the girl, then 7, continued.
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