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Israeli aid effort helps Haitians — and Israel’s image

Members of the IsraAid medical team offered treatment on Monday to earthquake survivors at a soccer stadium in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

The text messages started coming in to Shachar Zahavi’s cell phone in the middle of the night: “What are we going to do about Haiti?”

Zahavi, chairman of IsraAid, a coordinating organization for 17 Israeli and Jewish humanitarian groups, hadn’t even heard yet about the earthquake that had rocked Port-au-Prince, leaving untold thousands dead.

By morning, preparations already were under way to dispatch an Israeli relief team to the devastated Caribbean nation. Consisting of doctors, nurses, paramedics, and logistics experts, the 15-person group arrived Saturday in Port-au-Prince and immediately set to work treating wounded Haitians at the site of a collapsed hospital near the city center.

On Monday, deep into the thick of coordinating logistics for a second aid team to replace the first, Zahavi received a heartening text message from one of his team members in Haiti: “A 6-year-old girl, Jessica Hartelin, was just pulled from the rubble by locals nearly six days after the earthquake, was rushed to our clinic, and treated by the IsraAID/FIRST medical team. She was saved. She will be transferred in the next few minutes to the Israeli Defense Force field hospital for further treatment.”

It was one bright spot in a week that aid workers described as alternately heartbreaking and exhilarating.

The IsraAid team, composed fully of volunteers, was just one component of the broad Israeli and Jewish effort to help Haiti. As soon as the magnitude of the earthquake’s destruction became apparent, humanitarian officials sprang into action.

The Israel Defense Forces was the first major Israeli team to arrive. Team members reached Haiti last Friday on a flight loaded with military and civilian medical personnel from all over Israel, rescue teams, search dogs, and supplies. While Port-au-Prince’s hospitals were rendered mostly useless by the quake, the IDF team set up a field hospital near a soccer stadium to treat survivors. It was one of the only places Haitians could receive advanced medical treatment in the city.

“The Israeli field hospital is phenomenal,” Dr. Richard Besser of ABC News told “Good Morning America.” “They were up and running on Saturday morning, way ahead of the United States hospital.”

When Besser encountered a woman in labor named Soraya in a Port-au-Prince park, he got in touch with the only medical facility he knew about in town: the one run by the Israelis.

“Before long, Soraya had an operating room waiting for her,” said Besser, who helped deliver the baby. “Ultrasounds, IVs, medications. Soraya was now getting better care than she could have ever imagined.”

On Saturday, Israeli doctors at the hospital delivered a baby boy whose grateful mother said she’d name the boy Israel.

Meanwhile, other civilian aid workers were having trouble getting into Haiti. Power was down in most of Port-au-Prince, complicating matters, and airplanes on the ground at the city’s airport lacked sufficient fuel to take off and make way for additional aid flights to land.

The airport in Santo Domingo, in the neighboring Dominican Republic, became an alternate staging area, and aid officials from around the world converged on the Dominican capital as a first step toward reaching the earthquake zone in Port-au-Prince.

A 6-year-old girl was pulled from the rubble and treated by the IsraAID team in Port-au-Prince on Moonday. IsraAid

In Israel late last week, frustrated aid workers idled as they waited for a clear route into Haiti to be established. Reached by telephone last Friday, an official from Magen David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross, said the group still hadn’t received clearance to leave.

It took until Monday for the team of five Magen David Adom paramedics to get to Port-au-Prince, which they reached overland after landing in the Dominican Republic. Once in Haiti, the paramedics set up a field hospital in conjunction with the Norwegian Red Cross at the courtyard of the university hospital in Port-au-Prince. The hospital was up and running Tuesday morning.

A group from the Israeli disaster relief organization ZAKA was in a better position to move quickly. ZAKA had a team of rescue workers in Mexico assisting in recovery efforts following a helicopter crash there two days before the quake hit, so when the official Mexican aid delegation to Haiti left Mexico, Israeli rescue workers hitched a ride with them aboard a Mexican Air Force Hercules aircraft.

Before the week was over, ZAKA rescue workers had pulled eight students, alive, from the wreckage of a collapsed university building.

In a statement, the head of the delegation, Mati Goldstein, was quoted in an e-mail describing a “Shabbat from hell” in the earthquake-ravaged city. ZAKA is made up of Orthodox Jewish volunteers.

An Israeli and others carry a wounded Haitian to a field hospital on Monday set up by the Israeli army in Port-au-Prince. Zaka/Flash90/JTA

“Everywhere, the acrid smell of bodies hangs in the air. It’s just like the stories we are told of the Holocaust — thousands of bodies everywhere,” Goldstein wrote. “You have to understand that the situation is true madness, and the more time passes, there are more and more bodies, in numbers that cannot be grasped. It is beyond comprehension.”

To lift their spirits, the rescue workers from ZAKA taught Haitian survivors to sing “Heiveinu Shalom Aleichem.”

Whether clad in IDF uniforms, wearing the flag of Israel on their shoulders, or holding Shabbat prayers during a brief break from their rescue work, the Israeli aid workers’ visible presence in Haiti is helping to promote a positive image of Israel in a world more accustomed to seeing the nation negatively.

“I am sure it is good for the Israeli image, but we’re not doing it only because of this,” said Danny Biran, ambassador of logistical and administrative affairs for Israel’s mission to the United Nations and the Americas. “We are doing it because we believe in what we are doing.”

“We always carry an Israeli flag and hang it wherever we work. We don’t do anything under the radar,” said Zahavi of IsraAid. “It’s important for us to show that we come on behalf of the Israeli people, and people should know we’re there for them.”

The IsraAid coalition is made up of aid organizations — such as the Fast Israeli Rescue and Search Team (FIRST), the Jerusalem AIDS Project, and Pirchey Refua-Israeli Youth Medical Cadets — as well as funding organizations including the American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rtih International, and UJA-Federation of Greater Toronto.

In an interview from Port-au-Prince, one of IsraAid’s logistics volunteers, Alan Schneider, director of the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem, said the destruction in Haiti was overwhelming.

“I’ve been to Chad, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Kenya, and Georgia on IsraAid missions, and I’ve never ever seen anything of this scale,” Schnieder said by telephone as patients receiving treatment at IsraAid’s clinic could be heard screaming in the background. “It’s like a war scene.”



Jewish groups still helping a tsunami-devastated Japan

Sue FishkoffWorld
Published: 27 May 2011
Dr. Gilat Raish, left, an Israeli post-trauma expert, guides Japanese teachers through a recovery course in Wateri, Japan, sponsored by IsraAid. Nofar Tagar for IsraAid

In northeastern Japan, the area hardest hit by the devastating March 11 earthquake and tsunami, a team of Israeli post-trauma experts guided local teachers and officials through their lingering pain.

One kindergarten teacher broke down in tears as she related how another teacher saw the great wall of water approaching her school and tried in vain to save her young pupils. Eight of the children were washed away, along with their valiant teacher.

“People were not aware how much the disaster affected them,” said Shachar Zahavi, the founder and executive director of IsraAid, a Tel Aviv-based nonprofit that is running post-trauma courses in the town of Watari, as well as providing other much-needed material and emotional aid in the region.

More than two months after the 9.0 magnitude earthquake and resultant tsunami destroyed thousands of homes, entire towns, and countless lives in Japan, Jewish groups from North America and Israel continue to offer a helping hand to the Asian island nation.

“It’s not like the scene in Haiti,” said Zahavi, referring to the many international agencies, including several from Israel, that poured into the quake-stricken Caribbean island in 2010. “Most of the other agencies have left Japan by now. A lot of people, in Japan and Israel, are amazed we’re still there.”

The Jewish Federations of North America has raised more than $1 million for Japan. More than $800,000 has come from individual federations; the rest has been raised through donations to the parent organization. Most of the money is funneled through the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and its local agencies on the ground.

The JDC, the Home Front Command and Medical Corps of the Israel Defense Forces, and IsraAid all rushed to the scene of the disaster, offering emergency aid as well as ongoing help.

According to its communications director, Michael Geller, the JDC has raised $2.1 million for Japan aid. Much of it went for emergency supplies sent to the stricken region by foreign agencies, including Chabad, UNICEF, and the International Rescue Committee. It also helped fund the IDF field hospital set up in Minamisanriku, a town in the Miyagi Prefecture where half of the 17,000 residents died in the tsunami.

The JDC is working through its partner agencies in Japan. With the American School there, the JDC bought desks and chairs for three schools in the city of Ishinomaki, and in tandem with Tokyo English Life Line is providing psycho-social support services and training to mental health professionals who work with children and the elderly. Geller said that more than 100 people will be trained by mid-June.

When the IDF medical corps pulled out of Japan in early April after treating 234 patients in its field hospital, it left behind more than healed bodies.

At the request of local officials, the Israelis left much of the specialized medical gear they had brought, including X-ray, ophthalmologic, orthopedic, and ENT equipment, as well as surgical coats, syringes, bandages, and other supplies.

The team also donated the six prefabricated buildings it had set up for its field clinic, which has become the area’s main medical center, said Col. Ofir Cohen-Marom, an ob-gyn from Assaf Harofeh Hospital and the deputy to the IDF’s chief medical officer.

“We were the only foreign medical delegation in Japan,” Cohen-Marom told JTA, explaining that usually only Japanese physicians are permitted to treat the Japanese population.

At first the Israeli team was escorted by medical personnel from Japan’s Foreign Ministry, he said, presumably to make sure that they were providing proper care. Within a few days, however, the locals and the Israelis were working together, consulting on the same patients.

“It was hard to leave this suffering population after two and a half weeks,” Cohen-Marom said. “It makes me happy to see they’re using the supplies and medical center we left behind. We really did a great thing.”

Cohen-Marom estimated that it will take up to three years for the region to rebuild, including constructing a new hospital. During that time, he said, the locals will continue to use the Israeli clinic and equipment.

IsraAid still has three or four staffers working in Japan, said Zahavi.

JTA Wire Services

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