Gal Lusky (far right) and members of the Israel Flying Aid volunteer team: I am led by the belief that everyone – no matter who they are – deserves to get help when they need it most.There is a good reason why Israeli President Moshe Katsav chose to invite Gal Lusky to a closed-door meeting at his residence in Jerusalem this past December.
Since founding the non-profit disaster relief organization, Israeli Flying Aid (IFA), a year ago, Lusky and her team of volunteers have provided assistance to victims of the tsunami in Southeast Asia in 2005, and more recently to the victims of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. And Katsav just wanted to say one word – thanks.
Lusky and members of her team – comprised of a total of 60 volunteers from a variety of professions including doctors, psychologists, and social workers – have also paid visits to the flood victims of Georgia and the earthquake victims of India and Kashmir.
The former flight attendant founded the IFA non-profit disaster relief organization a year ago with a single objective: to make the world a better place. “I believe in spreading goodness around, and in helping people,” Lusky told ISRAEL21c. “I will go to the end of the world to do it.”
Lusky means what she says. Unlike other aid organizations, the IFA targets people in far-flung locations around the globe that were either intentionally or unintentionally overlooked by most government or international aid organizations, to provide life-saving humanitarian assistance to people affected by either natural disaster or regional conflict.
The IFA does not discriminate between disaster victims, based on their race, religion, the hostility of their governments toward Israel, and not even in the face of anti-Semitism. “My grandmother once told me that if you go with goodness, no one will harm you,” she says. “If you plant mangoes, you won’t get lemons.
“I am very proud of my country, and if I can come with its flag, I will,” says Lusky, who explains that the organization’s insignia – a Star of David with wings – was designed to show pride in being Israeli. “But I come first and foremost as a person, second as a representative of my country, and only last as a Jew.
“Times of crises are not times for religion or politics,” she says. “I am led by the belief that everyone – no matter who they are – deserves to get help when they need it most.”
Lusky comes by this belief honestly. She takes her first example from her home, Kibbutz Hukuk, next to the Kinneret. “On a kibbutz, everyone takes care of everyone,” she says.
The lesson really hit home for Lusky when her elder brother was wounded while on a tour of duty in Lebanon in 1992. “When my brother was wounded, I was in the hospital for weeks, praying for him to get better. More than anything, I wanted someone to help my brother in his time of need. It was then that I promised myself I would dedicate my life to helping people in their time of need.”
A year and a half later, her brother returned, healthy, to his post in Lebanon. But Lusky’s life would be forever changed.
The IFA’s inaugural mission, to Sri Lanka after the tsunami, was also the inaugural mission of all 30 Israeli aid organizations under the single umbrella of IsraAID: The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid. Lusky led the group, which was one of the first to arrive to Southeast Asia despite the refusal of some governments to accept aid from Israel.
A total of 16 IFA volunteers set up 10 separate refugee camps around the Muslim village of Bala Pateya, in Sri Lanka. “I chose to go to Sri Lanka because India had a lot of help already, and Thailand and Indonesia are wealthier, and most of those who died there were tourists,” explains Lusky. “Sri Lanka was very badly affected by the tsunami and very much needed our help.
“I chose the village of Bala Pateya because even within Sri Lanka, it was grossly neglected. They hadn’t gotten any support from the government, since it’s not considered a tourist destination.”
For each of the 14 days that followed, the volunteers cooked 3,000 hot meals, provided post-trauma treatments for 350 kids, and offered medical treatment to over 400 village residents.
A year later, one IFA volunteer remains in Bala Pateya, where she continues to run programs in the camps, as well as in a few neighboring villages.
“This technique of choosing one location and dedicating yourself to it for a year, really makes a difference in people’s lives,” says Lusky.
Six months passed before Lusky was called into action again. Then, in June 2005 heavy rainfall caused severe floods in the poorest western regions of the Republic of Georgia, leaving thousands of people homeless and hungry. The Georgian government had decided it was too dangerous to send assistance to villages close to the Chechnyan border, and as a result, hundreds of families living on the border had been entirely neglected by aid organizations.
It took Lusky, along with three other IFA volunteers over 20 hours to reach the six most remote border villages in the districts of Boushty and Mestia City, where the volunteers distributed more than 10 tons of relief items including food, blankets, and medicine, donated by Israeli companies.
“The mayor of Mestia City was shocked to see us,” recalls Lusky. “She couldn’t believe we made it.”
Lusky was met with similar surprise by American army officials stationed at the St. Bernard and Bell Chase Plaquemines Parishes in Louisiana, 20 miles downstream from New Orleans, where she, along with 15 other IFA volunteers, arrived in September 2005 to help victims of Hurricane Katrina despite a ban on international assistance imposed by the American government.
Says Lusky, “The Americans didn’t want aid from abroad, but we wanted to go and hug those people, who have always been there for us when we have needed them.
“When the sheriff at the Bernard Parish saw us, he was shocked,” she recalls. “But he said that because we had worked so hard and come so far to get there, we were welcome to stay and help.”
For the following two weeks, Lusky led a diver’s search and rescue team, while the IFA medical team operated a makeshift clinic out of a church, without electricity or running water.
According to Lusky, they would never have known it was a neo-Nazi zone, except that one morning the group awoke to some disturbing graffiti, spray painted on one of their trucks: the word “asshole” was painted atop a Star of David. Says Lusky, “For the people who left Israel – their work, their families, their lives – to volunteer, it was a very difficult moment.”
The volunteers had but a month to recover before the next disaster struck. On October 8, 2005 an earthquake measuring 7.6 on the Richter scale struck the northern areas of Pakistan and India, killing at least 87,000 and leaving an estimated 3.2 to 3.5 million others in desperate need of winterized shelter, medical care, food, water, and sanitation facilities.
The IFA team headed straight for war-torn Kashmir to deliver relief items – including winter coats, children’s shoes, and shelter-building materials – to women and children in neglected border villages.
“I insisted that we deal only with women and children because they don’t participate in conflict and I never want to support any conflict,” says Lusky, who herself had to disguise as a Muslim woman in order to penetrate the villages. “It only takes one coat to prevent a person from freezing to death.”
The IFA returned to the region in December. “I wanted to reach the villages in the hills and mountains,” explains Lusky that the NGOs and the Indian army only supplied aid to larger population centers.
Besides a lack of reach to remote areas, the biggest problem with NGO support to disaster regions, says Lusky, is a lack of attention paid to the actual needs of survivors. For example, the US sent thousands of tents to Sri Lanka, but because they were appropriate for colder temperatures, the recipients of the makeshift shelters started cutting them apart to reduce the temperature inside them during the day.
Additionally, a lot of big NGOs dropped off dry rations like pasta, but even if the local people knew what to do with pasta, they lacked the utensils to cook it. As a result, bags and bags of aid ended up being sold on the black market. “There is often a discrepancy between the needs and what is given,” says Lusky. “People give from the bottom of their hearts, but not with the tops of their minds.”
The IFA brought food from Israel like rice and lentils, to match the local population’s diet, and bought the rest of the aid food in local markets. “Every disaster needs to be assessed to ascertain the needs and culture of those who have survived,” she says. “Usually, if you know the needs, it’s not a problem to fulfill them.”
According to Lusky, most NGOs provide one type of assistance – be it food, medical help, or psychological assistance. But few are like the IFA, which takes a more holistic approach to providing aid.
In addition to setting up the camps and communal kitchens, providing medical and psychological care, and health education to survivors in Sri Lanka, the IFA volunteers attracted the participation of 40 local helpers, including a lawyer, who closed his practice for two weeks to help; 10 chefs from nearby hotels, who prepared the three meals per day served at each camp; and another 15 fishermen, who had lost their boats to the tsunami, and were assigned to work with the camps’ kids.
Until the men started to volunteer, they sat around drinking all day, depressed, says Lusky. “Helping gave them a sense of purpose,” she says. “The kids really changed the attitude of the adults!”
The IFA also purchased 10 sewing machines and taught the women of the camps how to sew. Now, they are not only able to mend their own families’ clothing, but together, run a small but profitable business creating items for tourists to Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka.
“All people in the camps learned to share and contribute to their own community’s rehabilitation,” says Lusky.
The IFA’s relatively small size – the organization is funded exclusively by “friends” abroad, including Jewish federations around the world – enables it to offer help with a personal touch. Lusky recalls one particular instance in which this attention to the individual was crucial.
While en route to one of the remote border villages in Georgia, Lusky and her comrades came upon a woman with five kids. Their father, her husband, had drowned in the flood, as evidenced by the woman’s black robes of mourning. When Lusky’s truck stopped to give her supplies – food, oil, and blankets – the woman started to cry. “I am not crying for my husband, but for myself,” she revealed to the group that when her husband died, so too did her chance of survival, since she was relying on him to pay for her chemotherapy treatments.
Right then and there, Lusky got on the phone with one of IFA’s friends. The following day, the woman was hospitalized and receiving her second to last round of chemotherapy. “This kind of thing just doesn’t happen with big aid organizations,” says Lusky.
Although she has flown far and wide to help people in need, her roots – and heart – remain in Israel. That’s why she runs a special program to rescue Israeli backpackers who go missing abroad, or who have gotten themselves into trouble – primarily with drug use. “We think they deserve a second chance,” says Lusky with a smile.
The IFA also conducts special projects with Israeli kids who have been taken from their parents by social services. “It all starts right here at home,” she says.
It is the kids that Lusky says make her work worthwhile. “In a disaster, the hardest thing to deal with is the kids,” she says. “It is very frustrating – you do whatever you can for them, but in the end it is never enough to give them everything they need. But what is the alternative?” she asks. “To do nothing, or to change the channel on the television? Neither were a choice for me.”
According to Lusky, the kids of Sri Lanka – most of who lost their homes and their parents – woke up every morning at the camps with happiness. “It was amazing,” says Lusky. “If you would ask them why they were happy, they would tell you it’s because they felt lucky to be alive.
“I learned a lot from those kids,” she says. “We should all learn to live our lives with the cup half full, rather than half empty.
“Each and every one of us can make a difference.”