- The Washington Times - Monday, July 8, 2002

VIENNA, Austria Taxi driver Hannes Urban didn't start out to be anyone's savior when he went to South Africa, but his life took a turn.
Mr. Urban's plan was to visit one of the many pen pals he'd exchanged letters with over the years when he flew off from Vienna in 1998. That friendship didn't last, however.
"My pen pal wanted to marry me, so I fled," said the 45-year-old Mr. Urban. But by the time his vacation ended, he had discovered a deeper calling. Shocked by the poverty he witnessed on the streets of Cape Town, he left determined to help some of the people he had met there.
"I met a homeless woman there with a sick baby," Mr. Urban said. "So I went to the supermarket and bought her milk, yogurt, bananas. I told her I would come back to South Africa and make sure her child goes to kindergarten."
Since making that promise, Mr. Urban has founded his own aid organization, which has built a kindergarten attended by about 30 South African children per year.
He has also begun projects in several developing countries aimed at bringing food and medicine to the needy. Current projects include providing medical treatment to the rural poor in Mexico and delivering food to hundreds in the slums of Nairobi, Kenya.
Mr. Urban spends half the year in those various countries. The rest of the year he spends back in Vienna, driving his taxi and raising money for his projects.
A Roman Catholic driven by the desire to do God's work, Mr. Urban said he never set out to found his own charity. "My target was simply to help the poor and the sick."
He described how a string of chance events led him to found his group, Wir Helfen (We Help).
After his first visit to South Africa, Mr. Urban told his hairdresser about the homeless woman with the baby. She wanted to send some of her clothing to the woman. "But I told her I didn't have room in my backpack," he said.
Then, at a bar frequented by many of Vienna's taxi drivers, word spread among the regulars that Mr. Urban planned another trip to South Africa.
"Before I knew it, they had collected [290 pounds] of clothing," Mr. Urban said. "I didn't know what to do, so I went to a travel agency and asked if they could carry it as missionary goods."
British Airways agreed to transport the material for free, and Mr. Urban soon returned to South Africa carrying seven large cardboard boxes of used clothes. During that two-month visit, he met Thobeka Beatrice Sidlayi, a kindergarten teacher struggling to support her family.
"At my last supper there, I had the inspiration to go home, raise money and build a kindergarten for Thobeka," he said. "I returned to Vienna euphoric, thinking I would go from parish to parish [to raise money], but that didn't work out because the churches already had their own projects."
So as he drove his taxi through Vienna, he told his customers he was building a kindergarten in South Africa. The response was overwhelming. "A lot of people said they wanted to donate money."
In 2000, he founded the charity to give it "an official character." He since has had to overcome various obstacles, such as exporting to Mexico medicines donated by pharmacies in Austria.
Last year, he said, he raised $200,000. Because he lives simply in South Africa he lives in a hut alongside those to whom he brings both charity and prayers 95 percent of what he raises goes directly to his projects.
Mr. Urban was recently in Mexico to bring a team of medical professionals to poor Indian farmers at Santiago Tuxtla, in Veracruz state.
The team saw about 500 patients over six days, treating them mainly for conditions such as diabetes, osteoporosis, high blood pressure and skin disorders, said Angeles Garcia Brana, one of the volunteers.
Mrs. Brana, 43, a native of Spain, said the team hoped in particular to treat women and girls, since Mexican females often receive no medical care in impoverished communities. Speaking by phone from Mexico City, she explained that medical treatment is usually reserved for men and boys because the local culture values their lives more highly.
"The girls are also ashamed to talk about certain parts of their body and would not say anything about their problems, even if they're dying," she said.
The women and girls responded with overwhelming gratitude, Mrs. Brana said.
"The people are so thankful. They say, 'God bless you' and want to kiss our hands, as if we were the pope," she said. "And in return, they wanted to give us what little they had some water or a banana, even though the banana was maybe their only food for the day."


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