Israel Remembers Haiti One Year After Devastating Earthquake

Photo: Joel Leyden

By Joel Leyden
Israel News Agency

Jerusalem, Israel ---- January 18, 2011 ...... Its been one year since Israel dispatched a search, rescue and an advanced IDF field hospital to Haiti. I remember. I was there.

As a messenger, as a journalist, I have been trained to capture images not just through a cold camera lens click, but also from those around me who whisper, cry, laugh, touch, smile and breathe. It is for the people, the children of Haiti that I remember. That I write to take pride in what it means to be an Israeli.

That you shall remember and know the Haitians deep suffering and continue to take humanitarian action.
To remember the brave soldiers of the Israel Defense Forces who volunteered to risk their lives among earthquake aftershocks, falling ruble, disease and street gangs.

I first visited Haiti when I was 12-years-old. My parents would take me on luxury cruise ships every Christmas to the tranquil, fun, blue Caribbean. I never forgot the poverty though, the dirt in the streets and the white smiles of the black children who came to the clean, tall docked luxury cruise ships and dived along side our ship to grab the silver coins we would throw into the water.

Not corrupted by commercial concerns. Very basic. Very Israeli in the sense that the world has seemed to have forgotten them in their poor misery. Palestinians grab headlines with oil rich backed PR as their warehouses over flow with food in Gaza, but one does not hear of Israel children, or Haiti children wallowing in poverty.

The children of Haiti have been victims sentenced by cruel fate and then tossed about again by both human design and the unlimited forces of nature. They remain victims today. Though not sitting among their dead parents, brothers, sisters and children and babies, but remembering their lost love ones as they continue to starve. Sitting next to their own fesis.

The 2010 Haiti earthquake occurred at 16:53 local time on Tuesday, January 12, 2010.

By January 24, at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater had been recorded. An estimated three million people were affected by the earthquake catastrophe Haiti Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive recently stated that over 220,000 people had died and that 500,000 remained injured.

Bellerive also estimated that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged.

Jocelyn Lassegue, a native of Haiti who always wore a warm smile and worked as an English to French translator with Israel Flying Aid, describes the morning of January 12.

"I was on my bike (motorcycle) on my way to work. I sell mobile telephones. As I was riding on one of the main roads all I started to see was dust. Dust rising from the ground. The ground was shaking violently, so strong that it threw me off my bike. As I lay on the shaking ground I could see cars flying in the air as they turned over in every direction. Three people who stood just a few meters from me and started to rush over to help me were hit by falling cement blocks. They died where they stood. All I could hear was the sound of people screaming and crying. I made my way back home to discover that it was no more. Just rubble. My wife Ruth and two young children were inside. My wife and kids were watching a popular TV series. They were killed where they were sitting. I could do nothing except cry myself to sleep."

Jocelyn-Lassegue adds: "As the morning sun rose I started to remove the cement and bricks. I pulled my family out and dug a big hole next to the house. That is where they are now. With God."

Within hours of the earthquake, Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu gave the orders for the Israel Defense Forces IDF Homefront Command Search and Rescue and medical teams to leave for Haiti. Within 72 hours the IDF had established the first field hospital in Port au Prince. Within 6 hours, the Israel Defense Forces were saving lives as they opened their operating rooms to hundreds of Haitians.

In the two weeks that the IDF served the people of Haiti, they treated over 1,000 people and delivered one baby.

Well before the IDF were unzipping their kit bags in Haiti, I sought means to get there. The IDF had only 4 slots open for the Spokesperson's Office and I was not one of them. They suggested that I speak with Israel Flying Aid. By coincidence, I had the pleasure of meeting Israel Flying Aid founder and director Gal Lusky, SEO optimized their Website a few years ago and thoroughly enjoyed a colorful fund raiser.

Israel Flying Aid invited me to join their delegation to Haiti. This was with only two days notice. When asked "when are we flying out" the only answer was a tentative Thursday morning. Wednesday night I attended a final briefing at their Tel Aviv headquarters. Hours before I received injections for tetanus, typhoid and malaria and picked up an emergency satellite phone in Herzlia.

At the IFA headquarters, large, black kit bags with our names attached on white labels lined the halls. Our luggage contained a few things. White and blue Israel Flying Aid Disaster Relief T-shirts and hats to be identified by, head flashlights, a brown, plastic spoon and fork. And dozens of alcohol gel packets to remove our hands and faces of the germs and disease we were about to depart for.

Next to our bags lay open bags of hundreds of small, white, fluffy dolls. Soft, smiling bunny rabbits and tigers and cats. All providing a glimpse of the humanitarian mission that we had before us. To treat the children of Haiti for severe trauma, shock and rape.

The tragedy that is Haiti was very well illustrated by Deborah Sontag, a reporter in a front page news story of the International Herald Tribune. This reporter spoke with an American, Dr. Elizabeth Bellino, a US Pediatrician who was treating a 12-year-old before his leg was amputated.

While treating him, she broke down in tears facing an unlimited, depressing burden of children suffering around her. The young boy comforted her and told her to attend to the other children who were more sick. She regained her composure and gave the boy a kiss. Two days later she left for Rwanda for another humanitarian mission, but her mind always went back to this little boy in Haiti. The reporter found both Elizabeth and the little boy. Elizabeth said that she planned on returning to Haiti within two weeks and wanted to know what the little boy wanted. Upon hearing this from the news reporter, the little boy in Haiti quickly responded that he wanted a bicycle to ride to school and to church.

Then he took his hand and hit his head, saying: "I forgot."

Support Israel's efforts to help children in Haiti by donating to:

Israel Flying Aid
Israel Discount Bank
Branch 199
Account # 57797

Lastly, we signed several insurance forms, actually three insurance policies that would provide something to our families if we didn't return. We signed waivers releasing both Israel Flying Aid and the State of Israel of any responsibility for the humanitarian volunteering we were about to jump into.

If anyone had the slightest notion that we were heading for a holiday, that idea came to an abrupt halt hearing Gal say: "please do not wear any jewerely, they will cut off your fingers for your rings."

For going into a war and or disaster zone, we wear different colored clothes. Our work clothes when carrying an M-16, helmet and flak jacket is green, we wear gray when carrying a laptop, mosquito spray and bottles of alcohol gel.

With only 8 hours to departure time, I and a good friend who helped me to prepare for this trip to Haiti, Gayla Goodman, ventured into a huge supermarket. We were not there to buy Pringles but rather 12 underpants, shirts and three pair of cargo pants. As we were counting the minutes, I actually tried on the cargo pants in aisle 5. No one noticed. There was to be no washing or drying machine where IFA was going. We needed to be able to change clothes every few days into whatever we brought.

Now with my large, black kit bag in hand, my laptop, one satellite phone, two digital cameras and one day pack, I made my trek to Ben-Gurion airport before sunrise.

Israel Flying Aid and the Israel Defense Forces were to work together at the field hospital in Haiti. They were also planning to visit orphanages in Haiti to decide which was the neediest.

For our first week in Haiti the IFA team would divide its time between providing medical clowns at the IDF Field Hospital and going to several orphanages in Port-au-Prince where we would park our vans for a few hours each and provide shows for the children.

Israel Flying Aid and Orange Israel Telecommunications announced that they had planned to aid humanitarian efforts in Haiti by creating an orphanage which would immediately accommodate up to 70 children.

This would be the first of three stages of establishing an orphanage which was expected to absorb over 200 children in Haiti.

The orphanage would be staffed by both Haiti and Israel volunteers. These volunteers will provide primary medical care, educational, social services, nutrition and trauma treatment working in cooperation 20 Nuns.

"Israel Flying Aid is based upon the Jewish principles of the prophet Isaiah to: 'Uphold the rights of the orphan; defend the cause of the widow, and in doing so we do not discriminate by race, nationality or religion," said Gal Lusky, CEO and founder of IFA.

"From showers to electricity and computers, from water, food and clothing we will rebuild this orphanage," said IFA team member David Avner, CEO of Orange Israel Telecommunications.

"As for today we will take a yard and put up tents as it is unsafe for the children to remain in these cracked and unstable buildings."

IFA and Orange Israel are presently seeking to raise between 1-2 million dollars from the Israel business community for this humanitarian project in Haiti.

Avner, who lives with his wife and three children in Haifa, Israel and has served as CEO of Orange Israel for four year, says that the challenge will be the continuation of the orphanage for many years to come.

"The IDF came to Haiti to save lives, we have examined over 1,000 people at our Field Hospital", said Lt. Col. Tarif Bader, MD.

Photo: Ariel Shruster

"We have been very successful in saving many lives but there is still an enormous amount of work to be done in Haiti, but the IDF is designed to work in disaster and war zones whereby we provide primary care treatment. We embrace the many doctors and nurses who have left their homes in Europe, the US, Canada, Columbia and several other countries, the US military which has provided a hospital ship and will remain behind to provide primary care needed. The IDF has transferred all the hospitalized patients who need further treatment to other facilities in Haiti which are now operative at full capacity. I am very proud of being part of this IDF delegation and appreciate all of the IDF soldiers both in career and reserve service who took part in this difficult humanitarian operation."

The IFA team consisted of a nurse, Linoy, from Schneider Children's Hospital in Petach Tikva, Israel, 3 medical clowns - Dudi Barashi, Shuli Victor and Hamutal Ende, two logistics experts - Gal Lusky, the founder and director of IFA and Sima, a photographer - Ariel Shruster, the CEO - David Avner and COO of Orange Israel, our ground crew - Israelis living in the Dominican Republic, a translator and myself.

I found myself to be the only professional public relations, social media consultant and English speaking journalist embedded to be among these doctors, nurses and rescue personnel. Most of my job had already been accomplished as CNN, FOX, BBC, Sky News and many others came to realize that Israel had the only advanced field hospital established in Haiti. My job was to make sure that the headlines kept pouring out of our base camp so that those back in Jerusalem would know and appreciate what we were doing. That the world would know the heart which is Israel.

That we would be able to stay longer in keeping the children alive, fed with warm and safe beds.

In our flight to Paris to catch our connecting flight to Haiti, we slid deeply into our own thoughts. This was no ordinary trip to the sleepy Caribbean. Long, white sandy beaches, rum laced drinks and the sweet sound of steel drums was not awaiting us.
Going through security at Paris was something I would never forget.

Not being a frequent flier and knowing EU laws, I was told that I could not take a bottle of Scotch that I bought at Ben-Gurion duty free. It had to be 100 mls or less or drank on the spot. I became really upset knowing that they knew that was a transfer flight and rather than keeping the Scotch, let's take it away from these ignorant tourists and have them buy in our French duty free stores instead. Something to lift my spirits in this far away tropical Island had been taken from me.

Now adding insult to injury, they grabbed my Polo Explorer cologne. I argued that I did not buy it en route - this green bottle came directly from my bathroom! They responded that I could spray myself as much as I wished before they took it. Fuming, but smelling good, I headed for the departure gate.

As I arrived at the gate, I realized that my blue hat with the Israel flag on it was not on my head. I made a u turn and walked as fast I as could back to security.

"I want my hat," I said. One of the French security guys just shrugged his shoulders as if he had no idea of what I was talking about. Again, I demanded louder: "I want my hat."
Another security guy reached into a draw and took it out in less than a second.

Many of the French may not like Israel, but they do not need to steal our hats as souvenirs!

On board this 11 hour flight to the Dominican Republic were several search and rescue teams from nations including Greece, France, Turkey, Switzerland, Netherlands and Spain. It was almost like going to the Olympics and seeing the many colorful uniforms with the names of the country inscribed on the back of their jackets. But this was not the Olympics.

If anything, these were true heroes about to risk their lives among falling buildings, disease and perhaps gangs of thieves.

Upon arrival in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, all appeared very normal in the tiny airport terminal as we filed out our arrival and custom forms. We then made way to our hotel for our last night sleeping with air conditioning on a normal mattress with clean sheets and running water. This I knew. Lack of running water was something I had never experienced except on camping trips. This lay ahead.

It was now summer time in the Caribbean. No different than the night before a major and challenging march in the desert with the IDF, we enjoyed a really good meal. Kinda of like the Last Supper as we had no idea of what to expect the following day, the following weeks.

After taking three portions from a large American style breakfast, we left with heavy security on a two lane country road over and through villages, hills and dense jungle to the Haiti border.

I remember speaking to a journalist who was sitting next to me in the hotel dining room. He looked exhausted, stressed and pretty much burnt out. I wondered if that was how I was to look in two weeks. I had little idea of what he saw and heard, but it was not good.

It seemed rather romantic as we trekked over dirt, bumpy roads and eyed the tall volcano shaped green mountains on our left and right. We had no problem crossing into Haiti. There were many seeking to cross from Haiti into the Dominican Republic at the border. They walked around, they sat holding office documents, they sold canned food.

As we approached Port-au-Prince we looked for cracks in buildings. The first sign that a powerful earthquake had been there before us were a string of wooden electric poles leaning like the Tower of Pisa. Then we saw homes without roofs.

As we entered a turned and torn upside down city, a thick smoke masked the many fires, that we passed. We had instructions to keep the doors and windows closed and locked. From the little that I could see behind the black tinted windows were a mass of people wandering around. Many wearing white, surgical face masks to block out the stench of dead bodies, while carrying freshly cut wood and black charcoal in their arms.

We had no idea that wood was to replace electric lights, ovens and radiators.

It took us a while to find the Israel Defense Forces Field Hospital. It was dark, road lights were out and not many knew where it was. Finally we saw what appeared to be an IDF jeep. Two Nahal IDF soldiers stood at a small, red metal gate at the end of narrow, dirt road among dozens of Haitians trying to enter.

Once inside you would never know that you had left Israel.

This was an IDF base no different than any other IDF base in the Golan Heights, outside of Jerusalem or the Negev. Even the soil, the rocks and the trees looked identical.

We were told that dinner was being served at the Heder Ochel - the dining room. As we entered this IDF dining room which had transformed a tennis court into 6 long rows of blue and white tables, I stood in awe.

Just minutes ago I was in a scene out of the Twilight Zone or the Night of the Zombies and now sitting directly in front of me were over a hundred soldiers in IDF uniform singing Shabbat songs!

I must have stood in amazement, smiling in pride for at least ten minutes.
My smile would not fade.

I was never so proud to be Jewish.
To be an Israeli.

Never so proud of the Israel Defense Forces for having traveled half way around the world to help people who were not Jewish, not wealthy, not selling defense equipment or food to Israel. These Haitians could not help Israel in any manner whatsoever. But we were there to help them.

Photo: Joel Leyden

Yes, they had voted for Israel to become a state back in 1948, but that truly did not make a difference as Israel would have been there all the same.

After a tasty dinner served with traditional humus and some Shabbat wine, we set up our two man tents and air mattresses on a football field. The grass under and around our tents had turned from green to brown.

Our mission for the next day was to unleash our smiling medical clowns to the traumatized children who were bleeding with lost arms and legs inside the IDF tent hospital. But the clowns would not wait for the hours to pass. They put on their colorful costumes, their long, leather shoes, red plastic noses and made the kids smile.

The sight of all of these children, many crying for their parents who had died in the earthquake was heart breaking.

One of our clowns could not hide his tears after the first night. No one who witnessed these children writhing in both physical and emotional pain could not find a means to distance themselves.

The IDF is trained and used to caring for wounded soldiers, now some of the most respected doctors, nurses and medics in Israel were treating men, women and children with every kind of trauma associated with falling buildings, disease and starvation.

We awoke to the sound of a dozen roosters at sunrise. Our two man blue tents were set up next the grandstands, about a 2 minute walk from where IDF doctors were operating. The loud IDF PA systems announcements and constant roar of US military helicopters flying low over the hospital reminded one of the TV and movie series MASH.

But this was not TV. This was MASH.

What was totally absent for the rest of the day, the remainder of our mission, was the sound of birds chirping, singing. A sweet noise that I did not hear until landing back in Israel.

My job was to document and report. To allow the world a unique and real view of Israel. An Israel which would travel around the world saving lives. In Israel, a majority of government and private, commercial concerns after creating a great product and or service would say that if the product was so good, people would come and buy it.

This marketing approach has proved about as successful as the Titanic. But in this particular case, the IDF had flown into Haiti within 3 days of the earthquake, had began operating within 6 hours of landing and that itself was the most powerful viral marketing that one could wish for.

And Israel had not come to Haiti seeking positive PR. Israel is so used to being bashed no matter what it does, having professional public relations at this IDF Field Hospital would not make one degree of difference in world opinion. But again, Israel was wrong to have thought that. Not having sought professional PR, crisis communications or even event marketing - just the very news that Israel had the only and most sophisticated hospital up and running made the news from CNN, FOX and the BBC to Reuters, AP and SKY News.

My job was mostly done. But the remaining challenge that confronted me was shelf life. Yes, Israel had done well. But could we keep Haiti in the news for the people of Haiti and for the people of Israel long enough to stave off the oil rich PR pros from Iran, Syria, Turkey and Saudi Arabia who seek Israel's total destruction?

The IDF provided Internet access to reporters under a make shift tent. In fact, it was not even a tent, it was some large canvas that stretched from the side of a caravan to the 3 or poles in the ground. I began getting out news releases through PRWEB and Rush PR News - online, new media, Web 2.0 services that provide news release distribution to every media outlet around the world. I forsaked using my own Israel News Agency for I had feared that during an upload or download if the electricity went out, the entire INA site could crash.

I was able to get the news releases out and push them out to Google News, Twitter and Blogger. All was working except for Facebook. My Facebook account had been disabled the day that I entered Haiti with over 4,500 friends including governmental, humanitarian and media contacts. I had not broken any of the Terms of Service of Facebook, yet someone appeared to have hacked into my Facebook account and or made false abuse complaints. This was three weeks ago.

My Facebook account was only restored about two weeks after having arrived back in Israel. My disabled Facebook account did not hurt me but it did hurt getting logistics from and to other NGO humanitarian contacts I had on Facebook.

This disabling action may have cost the lives of some trapped and hungry children. Something that the Islamic cyber terror hackers would have embraced. It was only after I got back from Haiti that someone had pointed out to me that a Facebook group with 700 members was created with the sole purpose of taking my account down. The name of the Facebook group was a very innocent: "Save Gaza".

Photo: Ariel Shruster

International reporters came and went to the Israel Defense Forces Field Hospital but only two Israel reporters stayed throughout the entire time that I was there. A female reporter from Yediot Ahronot - YNET and a photographer from StandWithUs.

After only a couple of days, one of our team members fell ill. It was one of our medical clowns who was always in close contact with the sick and sneezing children. He started to vomit one evening and by the next day he could not move. Fortunately we were surrounded by doctors and nurses. After two days, he was back on his feet and ready to be evacuated back to Santo Domingo with one of our nurses. Not more than a few hours would go by that we did not wash our hands in Dr. Fischer alcohol gel.

During the time we spent at the IDF hospital, Gal Lusky was gathering logistics on an orphanage where the children had little if no food. After two days, they found the orphanage and started to supply it with food and water. As the IDF closed their field hospital and began folding their tents after two exhausting weeks and handed it over the US Airborne Army, our delegation set out for the orphanage.

It was to be our next home for at least a week.

From USAID on February 15, 2010 we learned that the estimated deaths totaled over 212,000. People displaced by the Haiti earthquake was over 700,000.

As of February 14, 2010 only 42 percent of the population has received basic shelter and food.

As we arrived at the orphanage we were greeted by smiling nuns and curious children. Many of these children had large stomachs, bloated from starvation that the nuns mistook for over eating. The small children were receiving only one meal a day until we arrived. Our first task, get food into the mouths of these sweet, innocent and loving kids.

Prior to the whole delegation's arrival, representatives from Israel Flying Aid and the Israel Defense Forces visited the orphanage in Haiti where they examined 50 children who were suffering from severe starvation.

Seeing many of the children with bloated stomachs, was something that Jews had not seen since the Holocaust.

An IDF Lt. Colonel and three nurses began to vaccinate the children, while professional clowns which were brought to Haiti by Israel Flying Aid, provided the children with treatment for trauma.

The children quickly grabbed and ate the fish, rice, beans and fresh milk that IFA had brought to them – food that they had not seen for almost two weeks.

Photo: Joel Leyden

Twenty children had been kidnapped from the orphanage just days prior to the arrival of IFA and sold to human traffickers.
Our photographer, Ariel Shruster, mentioned to me just an hour after arriving at the orphanage, was it not kind of strange that the children were not showing any interest in us. It took me a minute to realize that he was right. Something was very wrong. These sweet, little children were traumatized.

I immediately made myself child friendly placing a small white, furry bunny rabbit with two large pink ears strapped to my black satellite phone case. The satellite phone case, bottle of mosquito repellent, alcohol gel packets, my blue neck hanging bandana (ready to be used as a tourniquet and catching sweat as it rolled off my forehead), two digital cameras, and my red Swiss army knife replaced any need for a M-16.

It was this equipment which remained glued to my body, not far away from much money tucked away in places that only I and the cockroaches could find.

We would wake early but no earlier than the nuns who would be praying several times a day. Occasionally one of them would use a small, hand held metal bell in their kitchen to let us know that breakfast was ready. Forget the eggs, coffee and croissants. We were eating the food that we had brought with us - pasta noodles and rice.

As part of our team was coordinating the purchase and delivery of tons of food, the other members were out recruiting construction workers from the tent cities which covered every park in Port Au Prince.

Israel Flying Aid was determined to rebuild the orphanage with the financial help of Orange Israel Telecommunications before we left Haiti. Until now, the children were sleeping outside next to garbage and cockroaches as they feared staying inside a building that they and the Nuns thought would fall on their heads.

Gal's idea was to build a wall for security and then inside an adjoining field, build four strong walls from cement and cement blocks and provide kind of a Sukkah roof. Easy and fast to build and none of the aftershocks would send cement blocks hurtling downward towards the sleeping children.

Gal is a very attractive, personable and sensitive human being who speaks a number of languages. But behind that warm smile lays nothing less than a truly focused tigress. With the organization of an elite IDF combat officer in a firefight, she would demand and get total respect from the IFA team.

Where I had grown up in New York where it was fashionable to be a bit late, here you were warned that you would be left behind. Their was no nonsense with this team leader. Not a minute would pass that this real life "Macgyver" was not working on and getting accomplished what she started out for.

At one point, two men from the Pinson Foundation in Florida had driven two hours to find us to donate a mobile, electric generator. Now we had the generator, the oil and the fuel. All that was missing was the funnel.

"Joel, can you please give me one of the news releases," Gal asked. I wondered why in the middle of putting together this electric generator did she want to review one of the news releases. Without questioning, out of my gray cargo pants pocket, I unfolded a news release and gave it to Gal. She then took the paper and shaped it into a funnel. The generator now had both oil and gas. Never had I seen operations and public relations integrated so quickly and intimately.

One of our team members who came as a medical clown now took on the job of logistics coordinator given his large size and strong frame. The children and nuns would smile and call him Jesus as he did look the part.

Gal and "Jesus" (his real name is Ohad) searched for and found ten construction workers in a mere two hours. Within three days a building stood to provide shelter, safety and warmth for the children.

The orphanage was located in a residential area of Port Au Prince. This was an area where both shacks and large, elegant homes coexisted. What they shared in common were dirt roads with sewage streaming down the sides. There was no pavement, just garbage with a new element added to it. The gray cement rubble of the homes which had either totally or partly collapsed from the earthquake.

Not having any wireless Internet, I set out searching for it. With the luck of the gods, I found an Internet cafe just two blocks away - without the cafe.

The small store had about a dozen computers powered by solar panels and a mobile electric generator. Joel, the Internet shop manager who spoken a bit of English, told me that many of the computers were down. After about 2 hours I got them back up and running. But what most came to this store for was to recharge their cell phones.

To and from this Internet store named Strac, I would pass men sitting and playing Monopoly. I thought it was rather a strange paradox that they were buying and selling buildings when all around us was either down or cracked. The women sold toiletries and some canned foods. There was even some meat and fish out, but whatever was open was covered by a blanket of flies.

One young, smiling barber who spoke English without missing a note, had his small, steel caravan store doors open for business. The haircut that he gave me was the only normal taste of civilization that I experienced while in Haiti.

Walking alongside me on the cracked, dirt roads were the skeletons of dogs, pigs and goats. Many had open wounds for which flies attacked. I wanted to find a vet for a dog whose eye was bleeding, but in this chaos I had to remind myself that the children I was staying with came first and foremost. In Haiti, man's best friend - dogs - were expendable.

Photo: Joel Leyden

One would see very few cats in the street. When I asked about where were the cats, I was told they were being eaten. When I finally found a few, their owners made sure that they never ventured out to far from their homes.

Our young drivers were from the Dominican Republic. They spoke Spanish as they flirted with French speaking Haitian women. Normally those from the Dominican Republic and Haiti had very little in common - in fact they did not like one another.
Perhaps it was a clash of Spanish and French cultures. But the earthquake changed all of that rapidly as hundreds of rescue and medical volunteers poured into Haiti from Santo Domingo. These two neighbors, who were once separated by different languages, were now united in a language called humanity.

We ate very little. Our first meal inside the nun's kitchen consisted of rice. It made eating uncooked, combat food - Luf - in the Israel Defense Forces seem like a delicacy. But I sat there chewing it and smiling all the same as not wanting to offend the nuns who were also eating it. One of our team members must have helped them with the recipe because by the next day, it was edible.

I joked that there was Weight Watchers and there was Haiti. I was now on the Haiti diet and was very thankful for the cinnamon granola bars that I had taken with me. For the Kellogg's cereal that we had bought and brought with us from Santo Domingo. As for water, we drank from mineral water bottles. And we made sure that we always had a bottle or two near us or on us for reserve.

After two days of not showering and really being in a combat, camping mode, the nuns announced to me that my "shower" was now ready. I knew there were no showers and looked at them with a questioning face. Through a translator I realized that they had warmed up water over a fire and had a large, warm bucket of water waiting for me in a tall, closed wooden stall.

At first I refused. But then after realizing the effort that they had made, and the use of valuable water, I put on my orange Crocs and made my way to a prehistoric shower where I poured about a dozen cups of water over my head. I completed this ritual with giggling nuns sitting and standing just outside. I must admit that it felt good but headed for the bottles of alcohol gel to finish the process. I was also pleased that I made their (the nuns) day.

While in the "shower", I took great pride in finding and slamming humongus cockroaches with my Crocs. Knowing that there was one less cockroach that would disturb these beautiful kids.

Photo: Joel Leyden

Our team could not be more diverse. As some of us supervised the physical rebuilding clowns were inside the orphanage teaching the children to use crayons and paper again. Within 24 hours the walls of the orphanage looked no different than the walls of any modern elementary school with orange, pink, blue and yellow drawings clinging to the grey and white cement walls.

By the end of our humanitarian mission, the government of Haiti thanked Israel Flying Aid.

"We have been watching you and your team work 24 by 7 since you arrived at the orphanage. Your quick, professional and modest humanitarian action in caring for these very small and sick children has saved many lives," Haiti Minister for Culture and Communications Marie Laurence Jocelyn-Lassegue told Gal Lusky.

"The efforts of Israel Flying Aid should be used as an example to the world that Haiti children can be protected, cared for and provided with everything from essential supplies and housing to children movies and loving hugs."

There are now two types of victims.

Those living in Haiti and those who came to aid them. The stress and pressure which affected this American doctor in Haiti, affected us all. No one can witness this living nightmare without suffering from some degree of PTS. Every doctor, nurse, medic and volunteer who went to Haiti during this disaster was and is nothing less than a hero for risking their lives among falling buildings, aftershocks, disease and violent gangs.

"You have raised human spirits and elevated the name of the State of Israel and the Israel Defense Forces," Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the returning IDF team. "As many plot against us, distort and muddy our names, you have shown the real IDF."

"The Chief of Staff has told me that the other militaries were astounded by how quickly Israel arrived at the scene and began to work," added the prime minister. "Those who have seen the IDF over the years, operating under seemingly impossible situations and missions, are not surprised."

"Many have tried recently to tarnish our image," Ashkenazi said in his welcome. "With your deeds, you have proven that the opposite is true."

"Facing this massive catastrophe was an exceptional group of people from the Home Front Command and the IDF Medical Corps," Ashkenazi said. "This group was a source of pride for every Jew."

One of the Israel Flying Aid medical clowns, Hamutal, worked nonstop with the small children. Her creative, loving energy appeared endless. Drawing, singing, dancing, blowing balloons and playing catch.

She once asked me if I wanted to join in and in minutes I was teaching them the words to the Sound of Music. I wanted to cry but quickly found relief in their smiles.

As the director of Fathers for Justice in Israel, fighting for equal access to be with my children and only being allowed nothing more than being labeled a visitor for 2 days a week, here I had over 50 children who were hugging me and I hugging them day and night.

Photo: Ariel Shruster

For our last evening with the children, we set up a projector and a DVD player next to the warm light of the kerosene lamps. The Jungle Book was soon being animated with sound on one of the once cold white walls. The children were given bags of crisps, reassembling Bamba - that we have here in Israel.

As we would lay down to sleep, first one, then two, then four or five children would take my hand and lie next to me. As with my own children, I made sure that the sheets covered them and scratched their backs as they fell asleep.

As we awoke to our last day in Haiti, again it was the roosters saying good morning. The children and our team members melted together. Their new sleeping quarters were up and the cement was drying.

One by one, the children were led by the nuns to their new house as IFA team members greeted them with a selection of soft, colorful dolls. They were all crying. Clutching onto our clothes, begging us not to leave. I never fought so hard to keep my own tears from falling.
I remembered to breath deeply.

I still am.



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