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Israeli aid effort helps Haitians — and Israel’s image

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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.

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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.

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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.”

JTA

 
 

Haitian apocalypse and a bold new world

 

Local lawyer expands burn network to Haiti

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Sam Davis, right, and Dr. Tom Bojko are pictured with Presume and Roselyn DeHart at the For Haiti with Love burn clinic.

To most people, the January earthquake in Haiti had no connection to burn injuries – after all, it was not a fire. But the connection made sense to Sam Davis. The Teaneck-based attorney, founding director of Burn Advocates Network, helps equip and staff 22 burn camps and centers throughout the United States and one in Israel.

“A lot of our work is dedicated to helping burn survivors, so we did research and found out that because the standard [Haitian] method of cooking is using hibachis, hundreds of kids were burned when hibachi stoves went flying into the air with hot oil in them,” said Davis. “And kids with even minor burns were dying from infection because there was no supply chain for medicines and no facility left standing that was doing skin grafting; the biggest burn facility in Port-au-Prince had been destroyed.”

That left only a three-treatment table burn clinic called For Haiti with Love, founded 40 years ago by a Jewish man from Indianapolis and run by his adopted daughter, Haitian nurse Roselyn DeHart, and her husband Presume, a police officer. Its building sports a large Star of David on its façade.

“You would have a mother carrying a sick child for 70 miles, getting rides where she could, because this was the only place to get free care for burns,” said Davis. “Parents and children started essentially camping out and overwhelming this little facility.”

Ironically, DeHart’s dad had arranged spina bifida surgery for her many years ago at a Shriners Children’s Hospital, and — through Davis — Shriners surgeons, therapists, and dieticians are now helping DeHart treat burn survivors in Haiti.

Davis stumbled upon the clinic in March, while he was running a general BAN relief drive for Haiti. Through the generosity of the Israeli-owned Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines, BAN and Cooper University Hospital in Camden shipped close to 50 tons of food and medical supplies out of Bayonne to the Royal Caribbean port in Labadee, North Haiti. Rabbi Lawrence Zierler of the Jewish Center of Teaneck came to Bayonne with a check from his congregation to help defray costs.

“Our slogan was ‘From the dock to the doctor in six days,’” said Davis, a member of Temple Beth El in Closter.

That was not an easy goal to meet. Because the Haitian airport was shut down, he hopped on a Royal Caribbean cruise ship, got off at Labadee to receive the first shipment, and escorted the goods over treacherous mountain passes with the help of a Nepalese U.N. convoy. Along the way, Davis discovered For Haiti with Love just five miles from Labadee in Cap Haitien, and mounted an effort to staff and stock the facility.

Though he had intended to focus on burn victims, Davis could not ignore other medical needs he witnessed at Cap Haitien’s Justinian University Hospital. “It was swamped with earthquake cases and badly needed equipment and physical therapy help because they didn’t have a PT capability to tend to all the amputees,” he said.

Securing permission from the Haiti Ministry of Health to start a physical and occupational therapy clinic at Justinian, Davis returned with Jim Ressler of Medical Angels and Premier Home Health Care in Fort Lee; Karen Canellos, a licensed physical therapist from Englewood Hospital and Medical Center; and Dr. Thomas Bojko, an Israeli pediatric specialist from Tenafly who is director of medical services and clinical operations at Bristol-Myers Squibb Children’s Hospital at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick. Among their self-appointed tasks was training a crop of local therapists.

At the April 27 dedication of the facility, presided over by a Catholic priest, Davis and his team wore clothing bearing the logo of BAN’s Israeli burn camp. “They knew we were Jewish,” he said. “As a result of the Israeli field hospital, the entire country has a favorable view of Jews and Israel and many people expressed that to us.”

BAN also arranged for Royal Caribbean to bring over a new $155,000 life-saving oxygen processor from Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck to the Sacre Coeur Hospital in Milot, and recruited a team of burn surgeons from Shriners hospitals, therapists from Weill Cornell Medical Center, and doctors from all around the country who belong to the American Burn Association.

“We are committed to taking the burn care system in Haiti to a point where they’re able to do skin grafting and care for more serious cases,” he said. “We will see how we can coordinate care offered by small satellite clinics like For Haiti with Love. With a little more education and supplies, they could save more lives.”

Davis likened the current standard of care in Haiti to “Civil War medicine,” citing many cases of patients undergoing amputations without anesthesia. “They use coconut and herbal paste on burn wounds, which is not going to keep patients alive for long once infection sets in,” he said. “We’re still raising funds and finding volunteers to keep antibiotics and bandages and medical equipment flowing to a place where burn cases often take years of care. The biggest challenge right now for those burned in the earthquakes is to get scar surgeries, because their hands and feet can start to claw.”

Davis pledged to secure kosher food for any Jewish volunteers who come forward.

Ressler wrote in his blog that the Sacre Coeur Hospital is expected to become the national facility for serious burn cases. “The catchment area would extend the 70 miles to Port-au-Prince and beyond.... It is our goal to enable For Haiti with Love patients who require a higher level of care or surgeries to get that care at [Sacre Coeur] and return to FHWL for wound aftercare.”

Davis is convinced that additional burn injuries are inevitable. “The next big disaster in Port-au-Prince will be a burn disaster because thousands are living in tent cities in close proximity and they’re cooking and storing fuels there,” Davis predicted. “When this disaster hits, there will need to be an expanded capability to deal with the injuries. Hopefully through this program at Sacre Coeur, there will rotations of clinicians and educators. It will not be an American style burn center, but it will offer a more organized system to save more lives given the resources they have.”

For information, go to www.haitiburnsurvivors.org or call (877)-BURN-411.

 
 

Tomas Sheleg and Luna Road bring light to Haiti

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Tomas Sheleg stands next to the water tank built by the JDC.
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A typical street in Port-au-Prince, where people buy food from farmers who live outside the city, while “garbage is all over them, all around them, and sewage is flowing everywhere.” TOMAS SHELEG

Seeing the light” is not an abstract concept. It is a hard reality, with spectacular implications, says Fort Lee resident Tomas Sheleg.

Sheleg, originally from Israel, traveled to Haiti in July, installing light fixtures that not only garnered gratitude but, he says, saved lives.

“There are lots of robberies during the night. People in the camps are living in pitch black and girls are being raped,” he said. “It’s a common thing since the earthquake. No one understands the scale” of what is happening there, he said, adding that television images don’t show the full horror of the situation.

Founder of the solar lighting company Luna Road, the former Ridgewood resident said the idea for bringing his light panels to Haiti came up during a conversation with Will Recant, assistant executive vice president of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and a member of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood.

“We started talking,” said Sheleg. “I showed him one of my products and he was very interested. The idea was to use it in a school in Rwanda to help villages there.”

Then Recant mentioned Haiti, which, he said, needed immediate help.

Told that a specific camp was the site of five rapes in one week — occurring most frequently in the enclosed area where the young girls, 12 to 16, went with a bucket of water to bathe — Sheleg decided to take action.

“Our product is unique,” he said. “It’s small and easy to install.” He thought it would be “an amazing solution” to that problem.

“People were hearing the girls scream but they didn’t go to help because it was too dark,” he said, pointing out that the Port-au-Prince camp, containing some 6,000 people in an area half the size of a football field, had no source of light. So, he said, he decided to produce a few units and rush them to Haiti.

“I flew with the units and joined a representative there from the JDC,” he explained, noting that the Joint Distribution Committee was there to help set up schools and provide food.

“The panels were donated by us — Luna Road — to the JDC,” which covered some expenses, such as shipping.

Sheleg said he was “shocked” by what he saw, especially in Port-au-Prince.

“Some of it is completely destroyed,” he said, adding that while he speaks some French, the predominant language of the country, he was unable to talk directly to the people, using a translator instead. Still, he noted, “you can see that they are very hopeful people. You don’t see their sadness and distress but [rather] a sense of hope.”

Camp residents were very grateful for the light, he said.

“The morning after the first night [with the light] was amazing. You could really feel how happy they were.”

Sheleg said the light took only a half-hour to install and “we could do thousands in a week.” He’s now speaking with other organizations in Haiti interested in having the units put in.

“For the cost of one street bulb you can install 10 of my lights,” he said. “So for the same money, you can help 10 times more people.”

Luna Road was interested from the start in reaching out to needy populations, he explained.

“We were trying to create something cheap enough so everyone could get it,” he said. “Solar technology is cutting edge, but for some it’s inaccessible. So we integrated that technology to make it accessible for third-world countries. We’re Israelis,” he said. “We saw a situation and said, how can we fix it?”

He noted that many of his ideas came from visits to Israel, which he called “the feeding group for any startup today.”

Paying tribute to the JDC, he said the organization had also built a water tank at the camp he visited.

“It’s like a faucet,” said Sheleg, explaining that every other day, fresh water is brought in on a truck.

“They do amazing work; I was very impressed,” he said. “I’m happy to know the Joint is there to help Jews all over the world, but not only our own. It shows that our Jewish spirit goes the extra mile.”

Sheleg, who had already been to the United States several times, said he came again in 2006 through Zahal Shalom, established more than 10 years ago to bring disabled Israeli veterans to New Jersey. Soldiers stay as guests of local families, spending two weeks visiting New York City and Washington, D.C., and participating in community events.

“It creates an interesting dynamic between Bergen County residents and veterans from Israel,” he said.

According to its website, Luna Road — which specializes in the design, manufacture, and installation of “high-tech ‘cat’s eyes’” — was founded to spread the use of solar technology and is “determined to help bring night-time road safety to drivers all around the planet.” Luna Road lights, cell-phone size solar cells, trap the sun’s energy during the day for use at night.

“We believe in saving lives, preserving the environment, and beautifying night-time roads around the globe,” he said, adding that — as he learned in Haiti — light can save lives in more ways than one.

“We will give the units at cost to help the people of Haiti and other NGOs who are looking to do good.”

 
 
 
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