I arrived 50 kg (110 pounds) over the weight limit – including the toys, vitamins and antibiotic creams, and accompanied by Woodley Elysee, a local six-year-old child who was brought to Israel for heart surgery and was operated on by doctors of the Save a Child's Heart organization. In addition, we were accompanied by his aunt Judith, and by Alamer Bronstein, 21, a volunteer in the Israel Flying Aid (IFA) organization, which has been taking care of orphans for the last few months in this place with no running water, electricity or even the most basic sanitary conditions.
The four of us joined a team of Israeli volunteers to celebrate the Passover seder, after which Wadley began the three-day journey home – whole, hale and hearty. My pity for the little guest soon dissipated when I saw how good his condition was relative to those living here. He may be recovering from surgery, but he does not suffer from malnutrition or disease, and yes, in addition to his aunt he also has a mother, father and home to return to. But what can one do, Haiti rapidly altered my perspective on what there is, what there must be, what is important, and what is crucial for life.
Orphan girls in poor Haiti; after an earthquake. In a place where those who are meant to take care of them have no compassion and are not watchful. This is the place Gal Lusky, founder and director of IFA, chose to help. Lusky and her attentive army of volunteers are no strangers to disaster sites, particularly in countries that do not hold diplomatic relations with Israel, providing immediate support to the weakest population groups. This time she decided to leave the urgent tasks to the IDF delegation and chose to assist in long-term efforts for the sake of orphan children.
Neglect, apathy, and abuse
In light of past experience from poverty-stricken countries, it was decided in advance to join forces with an orphanage that keeps a record of official state paperwork. This was done in order to avoid suspicions of pedophilia and child snatching, which are usually raised against foreign aid groups.
The orphanage chosen is under the Catholic Church's responsibility. However, its staff of nuns, which comprises grown-up orphans or mothers who abandoned their children elsewhere, is not the model of compassion and altruism one would expect from those who have chosen to dedicate their lives to the community. The Israelis soon discovered that the nuns' treatment of the girls varies from neglect and apathy to abuse. Until the volunteers arrived, the orphans would cook, clean and wash for the nuns.
Bar Lusky. Giving out hugs (Photo: Shlomit Sharvit)
When Lusky first arrived here she found the girls lying down in the open - by a collapsed building – sleeping on the ground alongside squatters and drunkards, and lacking basic protection. The home's permanent structure was only partly damaged, yet the nuns refused to sleep there for fear of further quakes, thereby bringing the girls out at night, where they were at the mercy of passersby.
The regular support for the orphanage, which was premised on wealthier students from the joint school covering the costs, came to a halt once studies ended following the earthquake. Other financing sources were unavailable.
IFA's cooperation with the IDF Home Front Command allowed all the girls to be examined by an Israeli military doctor. Most of them were suffering from ongoing neglect and hunger that caused grave malnutrition. Some of them were discovered to suffer from irreversible brain damage. Yet others were coping with dysfunctional immune systems and serious disease bordering on life-threatening conditions and were hospitalized.
'I'm gonna beat her up, I swear'
Meanwhile, the volunteers installed and filled a large water container in the yard, put up pergolas, brought mattresses for everyone, and purchased large quantities of food.
The yard where the girls skip rope was identified by Lusky – an open space bordering on the orphanage. Meter-and-a-half tall weeds were uprooted in one day of work, and a solid structure sealed to rain was built at the site.
The wall that collapsed in the quake was renovated, and the gate was fixed in order to prevent strangers from entering the compound where the girls stay.
"I saw a nun hitting a girl with a stick," said 12-year-old Bar Lusky, the youngest volunteer in the Haiti aid mission and Gal's son. "I'm gonna beat her up, I swear."
It turned out that the nuns have a variety of disciplining methods that include shaving heads, denying shoes and clothing, locking girls in a room for hours on end, and placing younger girls on a tall chair with no handles, thus allowing them to fall off repeatedly.
Just like Lisa Hefer, Yehudit Hamo, Alamer Bronstein and Bar's mother Gal – Bar also did everything required of him: He helped set up a chicken coop to enable the girls to get protein and feel responsibility and compassion for a creature weaker than them; he hauled sacks; he prepared food and distributed food supplements; and he excelled in his favorite role – spontaneous hug therapy. Simply that – giving out hugs and warmth to those girls, so hungry for a human touch.
Apart from this orphanage, IFA has also been assisting two others as well as two improvised orphanages set up by a local, the father of five. He and his wife traveled the streets following the crisis, taking up 30 children of various ages and caring for them all.
'Worm the length of a snake'
All 300 orphans received an immunization from IFA's teams; the shots were donated by the Health Ministry's public health services branch. Many of the orphans were given the shot in their thigh, as the sickly thinness of their arms did not allow for a needle to be administered. Of the 75 female orphans who got the shot, 74 cried out with pain, while only one cried for her mother. "She remembers what it's like when you have a mother," Bar told his mother in tears.
Lisa and Yehudit shockingly recount a 20-centimeter worm, "the length of a snake," that come out of the body of a five-year-old girl. After realizing what they were dealing with, all girls and staff members received anti-worm pills; as it turned out, the pills found a convenient shelter in the stomachs of other hungry girls.
Almost all tenants at the home look younger than their age. Five-year-old girls around here look like two-year-olds. Some of them have a mother or a father somewhere, and some of the parents arrive for a visit every few months. Many of the girls stayed here even before the earthquake. One of them is 13-year-old Louise, who in a hushed voice told us about her sick mother who sought to reach the hospital, but was the victim of a lynching by a group of men who killed her.
Following the disaster, more girls whose lives were ruined arrived. The six-year-old Bedeline, for example. When I lifted her up, her body weight was heavier than the rest; almost normal for her age. Her beautiful and large hazel eyes reminded me of my cousin. Only a closer look revealed scars that have not fully healed; as it turned out, they are the result of hot embers placed on her back by friends of her father, who quickly put her away at the orphanage.
Bedeline has not made many friends yet, and while walking in the yard I often felt her little hand holding mine or clinging to my hips or pants, seeking a little attention from the responsible adult in the area.
A birthday as a gift
The first delegation which left for Haiti included medical clowns on behalf of Philnor Found. With red noses glued to their faces, they taught the girls to laugh, sing and cry. Lusky was joined by Orange CEO David Avner and the company's VP Operations Chaim Beker, who witnessed the extent of the disaster firsthand and donated money for the renovations and food.
An additional NIS 100,000 ($27,000) were raised during an event held at Tel Aviv's Cameri Theater, with singers Ninet Tayeb, Alma Zohar, Keren Peles Ivri Lider taking part. A great amount of food was donated, and vitamins from the Ta'am Teva Altman company are given to the girls every day after lunch.
'We finally hear them singing.' (Photo: Shlomit Sharvit)
Of the 75 girls living in the orphanage, only four of them have a known date of birth. On March 30, Bar's 12th birthday, he decided to give his birthday as a gift to the girls who did not know when their own birthday is. Seventy-five goody bags filled with sweets and surprises were waiting for the girls in the small prayer room. On the balloon-decorated table were three huge birthday cakes adorned with writing - "Happy Birthday to everyone." Hearty song was sung in voices choked with emotion. Whoever has not witnessed orphans celebrating their birthdays for the first time has not seen true happiness.
Haiti's communication and culture minister lives in the same neighborhood as the orphanage and used to visit regularly. I saw her shock at the newly renovated girls' quarter, where they went to bed in clean, freshly painted rooms, on beds next to colorful curtain affixed to the windows.
"We finally hear them singing," she said enthusiastically. "Help from you, the Israelis, is amazing. Every time we talk about aid for children here and bring up the issue of adoption, I give you as an example – how you come here and help as you put the future of generation of Haiti where it belongs and provide it and the country with tools to continue on."
Once we returned to Israel, just Alamer remains in the house together with two locals employed to help with everything required to run the place. Alamer is serving as housefather and dad for 75 girls who show their thanks with a smile, dancing, and drawings dedicated to him with love and decorated with a sticker and a flower.
Gilboa Regional Council Chairman Danny Attar, together with Musa Kadoura, the governor of Jenin, donated to the organization's activities, which gained interest around the world. Ofer Bronstein, advisor to the Spanish foreign minister, recruited Diego D'Ojeda – chairman of Casa Sefarad-Israel, a branch of the Spanish foreign ministry in Israel – and Nicole Guedj, president of the France Israel Foundation. Together, they committed to raise awareness and fundraise within their countries so that the orphanage's operations will continue and the girls will not regress into the horrible conditions of hunger and sickness as a result of a lack of public interest.
The following items are needed for continued activities in the three orphanages helped by IFA: 16 new computers, 16 computer desks, two printers, packages of rice and lentils, sheets for twin-size beds, and a large generator in good condition. Backpackers traveling in the area who are interested in volunteering are invited to have an experience that will change their lives.
For details, donations, and volunteering: Israeli Flying Aid http://www.ifaid.org.il Tel: 0577224411, or directly to the organization's bank account: Discount Bank, Branch 199, Account number 57797, Swiftcode: Idblilit.