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  • By Mar-Vic Cagurangan

Elegy for Guam’s conscience

There is no shortage of articles written about the late Alfred Ysrael, his self-made Cinderella life, his entrepreneurial feats, his philanthropic work and the awards he had harvested. Outside of the oft-repeated stories, those who knew Mr. Ysrael had more fascinating trivia to tell. For one, he was fun story-teller.

“I was born at home in Kalye David, the poorest street in Pasay,” said Ysrael, who grew up in the Philippines, which became the home of his Syrian parents.

As the only foreign-looking kid in the neighborhood, the young Alfred was a favorite target of bullying. “I laugh when people talk about discrimination,” he said. “Most people in the Philippines automatically think that if you’re white, you’re rich. We were probably the only poor white family there, and we were looked down on. I was always being pushed around. I had to fight back.”

The young Ysrael occasionally found himself engaged in a physical brawl. “It wasn’t one against one; it was one against two,” he chuckled. “That’s why I grew up fighting. I always had to defend myself against bigger odds.”

In the succeeding decades, Mr. Ysrael continued fighting bigger odds — the arrogance of bureaucracy, the wastefulness of government and its reluctance to exercise prudence in the face of difficult situations. “What gets me is that the bureaucrats are more concerned about preserving their jobs and making their jobs important,” Ysrael said. “They would rather see everybody apply for welfare because the more welfare there is, the more secure their jobs become.”

The long interview with Mr. Ysrael one afternoon last year was preceded by a brief tour of his beach apartment in Tumon. The modesty of his abode complemented the pragmatic charm of his signature shorts and long socks. The hallway was crowded with the kind of wealth that ostensibly mattered to him most — a huge collection of framed photos of his family in growing stages. Mr. Ysrael told the story that came with each frame.

Hanging in the living room, which has a glass door facing Tumon Bay, is a certificate of recognition – the prestigious Distinguished Lasallian Award — bestowed on him by De La Salle University Alumni Association in 2011. It is one of the highest awards given by the De La Salle, an “Ivy . League” university in the Philippines, where he obtained a degree in commerce, and one of the beneficiaries of his many scholarship programs.

“Take a picture of this one,” he requested.

A proud Lasallian, Mr. Ysrael considered such keepsake from his alma mater a truly prized possession for it served as a reminder of a mission. No one had espoused the value of education better than Mr Ysrael. He never used cringeworthy political phrases; he just put his money where his mouth was. He spent his twilight years, donating millions to private schools to further equip them with resources to produce better educated students.

“More consideration should be given to private schools because the parents of private school students pay taxes twice—the tax money that goes to support the public schools and the additional money from their pockets to pay for the tuition of their children,” Ysrael said.

His conservative views sought to keep in check a community that has become afflicted with a sense of entitlement. On March 10, Mr. Ysrael passed away at 87. Farewell to Guam’s conscience.

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