By Wendy Plump, Times of Trenton/New Jersey
Martin Griff / The Times of TrentonProfessor Emmanuel Ahia photographed in his Rider University office in Lawrence Township on Wednesday, June 2, 2010.
LAWRENCE -- It's funny how many life-altering coincidences seem to take place in the humble taxi. You climb in the back and some unexpected frisson with the person driving changes everything in a heartbeat.
"We just sat there and started talking. Actually we started blaming the older guys for the arrogance that drove them to pull all us young men into battle," Ahia says, laughing now at the memory. "But here we were, two young people from different sides and both grieving for people who had died, and we just met as friends.
"It made me realize, even though I still had a lot of bitterness then, that people can change. That it's pointless to treat them with indignity. Everyone wants the same thing. That is what the hunger is for in the world."
Ahia, 60, a lawyer and an associate professor of counseling at Rider University, has turned that simple lesson into a lifelong professional commitment to motivate people -- and countries -- to treat each other with respect.
He does this on stages globally and locally. For example, Ahia recently delivered a scholarly paper in England at the Oxford Round Table on how the ethical principles of mental health could serve as a model for public policy formation -- how undergirding policy with the concepts of benevolence, veracity and forgiveness can uplift the mental health of an entire nation.
But his professional roots touch down locally at the intersection of law and mental health. Here, Ahia drives home his commitment especially as it relates to the treatment of prison inmates.
"Whenever you are dealing with the legal system you invariably run into a lot of mental health issues -- substance abuse, early childhood traumas, anxiety, depression, impulse control problems," says Ahia. "You have all these people who may have committed a crime but what made them do it? That is never looked into.
"I'm not justifying anyone's crimes, but my personal contention is that there should be more mental health services made available to people who are in prison. I believe in the rehabilitation model. For the sake of society at large, we need to do this so that when they're released they come out a different person."
To that end, Ahia published the "Legal and Ethical Dictionary for Mental Health Professionals," newly released in a second edition. The dictionary seeks to explain -- in clear, concise English -- the twisted, confusing legalese that counselors face when advocating for their clients.
He intends the book to be a kind of end-run around legal jargon for mental health practitioners. Thus equipped, they come from a position of strength when assisting clients who are in prison or facing prison sentences.
Born in Nigeria, Ahia was still in high school when he went off, willingly, to war. He fought on the side of the Biafran minority, one of several minority groups that wanted to declare a state independent of Nigeria. The secessionists lost. Though Ahia was never a POW, his brutal experience of the war fell heavily on him. He came to the United States as a young man not long after his encounter with the taxi driver, and he became a U.S. citizen.
Ahia has been teaching at Rider since 1990. He uses this pulpit as a means of spreading his message of compassionate treatment for whomever he happens to be talking about -- POWs, inmates, regular human beings. Whether the message goes out through students or through international appearances like the recent trip to Oxford matters little to Ahia, so long as it gets out.
"I believe that people who live in a just society -- not a society that fakes justice but where true justice is experienced -- their mental health improves," says Ahia in his mellifluous Nigerian accent. "Governments, individuals -- they all need to be aware of the necessity of general benevolence. You approach things by wanting to do good for other people.
"The principles of reliability, veracity and forgiveness -- that is really what I am pursuing. In Gaza, in Germany during World War II, in China and Japan, in Cuba and in Nigeria, people want to be in relationships, international or local, with people they can trust. They want to be treated with respect.
"Money is hardly ever the issue. I prefer to treat people with dignity rather than give them money. When you disrespect people, they will not appreciate anything else you do for them. It all comes back to a mental-health issue."
Ahia is working on a couple of projects today, including a new version of an earlier book on client confidentiality in counseling relationships. In addition, he teaches several courses in the counseling department at Rider. The course in legal ethics is his specialty, although he also teaches courses in diversity and in multicultural studies.
"I teach these principles of justice and respect in all my classes," Ahia adds. "I will have people in their 20s to their 50s in class with me. And when you talk about some of the principles of fair play and of treating people as human beings, oh yes, the younger students don't have any problem with that.
"So this is good."