Throughout human history, mankind’s fortitude has been tested. From wars to plagues to natural disasters, ordinary people have stepped forward to help others. Whether it’s a singular act of heroism, or someone who has dedicated their life to helping others, such selfless acts of everyday heroes can change the course of history.
We’ve put together a list of ordinary people who have shown kindness, humility and bravery despite the incredible danger, obstacles or self-sacrifices that lay before them.
1. CHIUNE SUGIHARA
Chiune Sugihara was a Japanese diplomat who served as vice consul for the Japanese Empire in Kaunas, Lithuania. During World War II, Sugihara helped save thousands of Jewish refugees. In direct defiance of his pro-Nazi government, Sugihara put his life and the lives of his family at risk by issuing approximately 6,000 life-saving transit visas to Jewish refugees, allowing them to flee to Europe.
In July of 1940, Sugihara and his family woke up to a crowd of Polish refugees gathered outside the gates of the consulate. Desperate to flee, the refugees knew that their only chance to escape the impending Nazi invasion was to head east. Sugihara was sympathetic to their situation but needed permission from his foreign ministry in Tokyo to grant the visas. His request was denied, but he decided to issue the visas anyway.
Aware that he would soon have to leave the country as the consulate would soon be shut down, Sugihara wrote thousands of visas by hand over six weeks. He worked all day, every day, late into the night until his hands ached so much that his wife had to massage them just so he could fall asleep. When Sugihara boarded the train back to Japan, it was reported that he was still writing visas and throwing them out of the window into the desperate crowd as his train departed. Because of Sugihara’s heroic actions, thousands of Jews were saved.
2. HARRIET TUBMAN
No list about ordinary people doing extraordinary things would be complete without Harriet Tubman. Born into slavery in Maryland, Harriet Tubman escaped to freedom in the north to become an American abolitionist and political activist. Despite the incredible risk to her life, Tubman led hundreds of family members and other slaves to freedom using a network of antislavery activists and safe houses known as the underground railroad.
Tubman’s knowledge of towns and transportation routes throughout the South made her an invaluable source for information to the Union military commanders during the Civil War. She became the first woman to lead an armed expedition in the war by guiding the Combahee River Raid, which liberated more than 700 slaves in South Carolina.
After the war, Tubman continued to work helping impoverished former slaves and the elderly. She also joined Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in their quest for women’s suffrage.
3. EDITH CAVELL
Edith Cavell was a British nurse who served as the matron at a nurse training school in Brussels before World War I. After the outbreak of the First World War, she decided to remain at her post and treat soldiers from both sides without discrimination. Cavell encouraged nurses to treat any soldiers that came to their hospital, regardless of what side they were fighting on.
When Belgium was captured and occupied by German forces, Cavell became involved in an underground group that helped British, French and Belgian soldiers reach the Netherlands, which was a neutral country. She sheltered allied soldiers in her hospital until they were well, and then smuggled them out through an underground passage. German police became suspicious of Cavell, but despite her colleagues' urges, she refused to flee and save herself. In 1915, she was arrested. Cavell pleaded guilty to helping allied troops escape and was executed by a German firing squad.
It is estimated that she assisted as many as 200 soldiers escape. The Germans had hoped for Cavell’s execution to deter others from aiding the enemy, but instead, the British press held her up as a martyr to the Allied cause. Her story was used to win other nations over to the Allied cause and convince young men to enlist. Eight weeks after Cavell’s death was made public, the British army saw a 50-percent increase in new recruits. Her heroism is still celebrated to this day.
4. PHYLLIS OMIDO
Phyllis Omido, known as the “East African Erin Brockovich,” is a Kenyan environmental activist. It all began when Omido took a job as a human resources administrator at a battery-smelting factory in Kenya. Kenya’s prospering solar panel industry has increased demand for lead, which is recovered by recycling car batteries in smelters.
Three months into her job, Omido’s two-year-old son became very sick. He spent an entire month in the hospital before he was diagnosed with lead poisoning. Omido knew immediately that it was a result of him being exposed to lead through her breast milk. It didn’t take her long to realize that her child wasn’t the only one suffering from lead poisoning. Omido quit her job and began investigating health concerns in the community. She discovered that residents had suffered miscarriages, respiratory diseases and other illnesses related to lead poisoning.
Omido founded the Center for Justice, Governance and Environmental Action (CJGEA) and convinced the government health center to test local community members for lead. The first three children who were tested had lead poisoning, one of which had 20 times the median blood level among children in the U.S. Omido campaigned with letters to all levels of government along with leading marches and petitions. Finally, after the involvement from the United Nations and international campaign groups, the plant was shut down.
In 2015, Omido was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism against lead poisoning in her community. Her work has resulted in the closure of 10 toxic waste smelters in Kenya. She has been threatened, arrested and forced into hiding for organizing opposition to lead-smelting factories. Despite the risk to herself, her family and her colleagues' families, Omdio continues to fight to protect communities at risk.
5. MALALA YOUSAFZAI
Malala Yousafzai is a Pakistani education advocate who defied the Taliban in Pakistan and demanded that girls be allowed to receive an education. When Yousafzai was 10 years old, the Taliban took control of the area in which she and her family lived and banned girls from attending school. After the Taliban started attacking girls’ schools, Yousafzai began speaking out. She gave speeches and started blogging about living under the Taliban’s threats to deny her an education. Her activism resulted in a nomination for the International Children’s Peace Prize in 2011 and she was awarded Pakistan’s National Youth Peace Prize that same year.
Unfortunately, her growing platform and international reach also caught the attention of the Taliban. On Oct. 9, 2012, Yousafzai was riding a bus with her friends on their way home from school when a masked gunman stormed the bus and demanded to know which girl was Yousafzai. Her friends glanced towards Yousafzai, giving her location away, and he shot her. She was struck on the left side of her head, the bullet traveling down her neck. Two other girls were also injured in the attack. The attack left her in critical condition. She was airlifted to a hospital in Peshawar and later moved to an intensive care unit in Birmingham, England.
Nine months after being shot by the Taliban, Yousafzai gave a speech at the United Nations. Her speech focused on education and women’s rights and she urged world leaders to change their policies. In 2013, Yousafzai and her father co-founded the Malala Fund, which is an international non-profit organization that fights to ensure education for girls around the world. In October 2014, Yousafzai became the youngest person to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, at just 17 years old.
6. IRENA SENDLER
Irena Sendler was a social worker in Warsaw, Poland in World War II. After the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939, Sendler established the Children’s Bureau of Zegota, an underground organization set up to save Jews. In 1940, Nazis forced approximately 450,000 Jews into a small sealed-off area of the city that became known as the Warsaw Ghetto. Sendler, along with a group of about 30 volunteers, smuggled approximately 2,500 Jewish children out of the Warsaw Ghetto using creative means such as coffins and ambulances to bring the children to safety. The children were placed in sympathetic Christian orphanages and convents and were given fake birth certificates.
In 1943, Sendler was captured and tortured by the Nazis, but she refused to reveal the names of people with whom she worked and the names of those she saved. She was sentenced to death, but members of Zegota managed to bribe a guard to halt the execution and leave her in the woods where she was found and rescued. She spent the rest of the war in hiding.
7. LOU XIAOYING
Despite spending her life in poverty, Lou Xiaoying saved dozens of abandoned Chinese babies on the streets of Jinhua, China. Her rescue effort began in 1972 when she found an abandoned little girl lying in a pile of garbage on the street. She went on to rescue around 30 children. Xiaoying and her husband, who made a living recycling trash, personally raised four of the orphaned children and passed the others to friends and family for a second chance.
For 35 years, the Chinese communist government enforced its one child policy in efforts to curb population growth and ease the strain on its resources. The policy mandated that under the pain of penalty, the vast majority of couples in the country could only have one child. Infanticide and child abandonment became common practices in China in response to the policy.
Xiaoying continued rescuing children throughout her life. She found her youngest child, a boy named Zhang Qilin, in a trash can when she was 82 years old. She said that even though she was getting old she couldn't simply ignore the child and just let him die. Xiaoying became well-known and respected in her community for her work with abandoned babies and is considered a local hero.
8. LOIS GIBBS
Lois Gibbs is an environmental activist who discovered that her neighborhood of Love Canal in Niagara Falls, NY, was sitting on top of 21,000 tons of toxic chemical waste. In 1972, Gibbs, a housewife at the time, and her husband moved into a home in Love Canal shortly after their first son, Michael, was born. Michael, who was healthy at birth, developed health issues shortly after the couple moved into their home. Three years after Michael was born, Gibbs and her husband had a daughter, Melissa, who developed a rare blood disease.
In 1978, Gibbs read about local waste sites in the Niagara Gazette and saw that Love Canal was one of them. She wondered if this could be the reason for her children’s health problems and she began petitioning to close the school. Gibbs gained support from people in the area and soon learned about other health problems in the community. With no prior experience in community activism, she organized her community and fought local, state and federal governments until more than 800 families were evacuated, and the cleanup of Love Canal began.
Gibbs' efforts led to the creation of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s “Superfund,” which is responsible for cleaning up some of the nation’s most contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters.
9. CHEN SI
The Nanjing River Bridge is a remarkable feat of Chinese engineering that lies over a stretch of the Yangtze River with a four-lane highway, a 22,218-foot-long railway track, a viewing tower and a series of piers. It is also the place where 2,000 people took their own lives from 1968 to 2006.
In 2003, Chen Si, a vegetable seller, had just started his daily walk on the bridge when he saw a man getting ready to jump to his death. Si grabbed the man and dragged him back across the steel railing. From that point on, Si decided to make it his life’s mission to save others. He has since spent every single weekend patrolling the bridge in an effort to prevent others from taking their own lives. Now, almost two decades later, Si has saved over 300 lives.
10. GINO STRADA
Gino Strada is an Italian surgeon and humanitarian who has spent the last two decades treating civilians and soldiers around the world, many in some of the most war-torn and remote places. Trained as a lung and heart surgeon, he travels to these locations to perform surgeries in addition to setting up hospitals in a wide range of countries that include Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Strata left a lucrative career in medicine to serve as a war surgeon with the International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC). In 1994, Strada co-founded an organization called EMERGENCY, that now runs over 60 hospitals, clinics and first aid posts, all of which offer free medical and surgical assistance to victims of war, landmines and poverty.
Strada has personally performed over 30,000 life-saving surgeries to people who would not otherwise have access to medical care.
11. THE CHERNOBYL THREE
On April 26, 1986, one of the four nuclear reactors at Chernobyl nuclear power station exploded, spreading 400 times more radioactive fallout as the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945. Two workers were killed instantly and 29 more died in the next few months. All of the fires were extinguished within 6 hours, but there was risk of a second explosion that would have been much more devastating than the first.
Several days after the authorities believed they had the situation under control, it was discovered that Unit 4’s reactor was continuing to melt down. Under the reactor was a pool of water, which worked as a coolant for the power plant. There was a slab of concrete dividing the radioactive water and the melting reactor, but as the reactor continued to melt it was burning through the concrete. If the lava-like substance from the melting reactor made contact with the water, it would have created a steam explosion with a force of 3 to 5 megatons, leaving much of Europe uninhabitable for 500,000 years.
In order to prevent the explosion, workers needed to drain the water underneath the reactor and the only way to do that was by manually turning the correct valves located in the flooded basement. Three men, mechanical engineer Alexei Ananenko, senior engineer Valeri Bespalov, and shift supervisor Boris Baranov, volunteered to dive into the contaminated water to turn the valves. It was considered a suicide mission and the men were told that their families would be provided for if they didn’t survive. But the men were successful, and their brave act saved potentially millions of lives.