One day in October, Sephora was sick with worry. She cares for 105 orphans in Chad, and food was running out. The kids were subsisting on corn porridge, white rice and pasta.
Suddenly, five Israeli Flying Aid (IFA) volunteers appeared at her doorstep. When she saw the Star of David on their shirts, she started to cry.
“Every Sunday in my church we pray for the safety of the Jewish people in Israel. We believe whoever prays for you will be blessed,” Sephora explained to IFA Founder and CEO Gal Lusky. “Now you showed up on one of the worst days of my life.”
It turned into one of the best days of her life. IFA stocked Sephora’s warehouse with $5,000 worth of nutritious ingredients to feed the orphans and staff members for six months.
“Sephora cried with every sack of food we unloaded,” Lusky tells ISRAEL21c. “It was so emotional. She said, ‘God really exists, he didn’t abandon me!’”
Lusky hadn’t intended to visit orphanages on IFA’s first humanitarian mission to Chad.
She was bringing sorely needed medical supplies to hospitals in this north-central African country landlocked by Libya, Sudan, Central African Republic, Cameroon, Nigeria and Niger.
Radical Muslim jihadis, including Boko Haram, easily cross borders to rape, kidnap, burn villages and terrorize Chadians.
A 25-year veteran of often dangerous relief missions to countries including Syria, Lusky had long wanted to aid Chad. Infant and child mortality here is exceptionally high, at 133 per 1,000 births. Maternal mortality is reported at 860 deaths per 100,000 births. Life expectancy is 49 for men and 51 for women.
Sephora cried with every sack of food we unloaded. She said, ‘God really exists, he didn’t abandon me!’
“We knew the situation there because we were operating in Darfur in 2004 and 2005 and a lot of Darfurians escaped to Chad. We always wondered how Chad was coping,” says Lusky.
She had her chance when Israel resumed diplomatic relations with Chad in February this year. The Arab media was reporting a lot of opposition to this development among hostile African nations.
“That’s when we decided to step in, firstly to do a humanitarian mission to Chad that we have long wanted to do, and secondly to do an open and visible solidarity mission, carrying the Israeli flag in our official logo with the Star of David,” says Lusky.
“We wanted the Chadi people to get to know the Israeli people. We wanted to show hostile countries that we have boots on the ground and we’re here to stay.”
Bringing medical supplies
Chad’s hospitals are grossly undersupplied and understaffed. There are just three doctors, nurses and/or midwives for every 10,000 residents.
IFA decided to gather and send medical equipment in cooperation with partner organizations, including Fondation Grand Coeur (FGC) run by Chad’s first lady, and Christian nonprofits Global Gateway Network and The Joseph Project.
Hadassah University Medical Center in Jerusalem donated 14 dialysis machines, three anesthesia machines and other medical equipment. Chad had only one government dialysis center with eight machines.
Maya Zuckerman, COO of Israeli Flying Aid, spent many months coordinating the donations and shipment ahead of the nine-day mission.
“Shipping from Israel to Chad requires going through Douala port in Cameroon, coordinating release from customs there, and transporting the containers by land in a heavily secured convoy to N’Djamena,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “That part of the procedure alone took about three months.”
Finally, Lusky was ready to go with four volunteers: Dr. Yasmeen Abu-Fraiha, a young Bedouin physician; Maj. Gen. Zohar Dvir, recently retired deputy commissioner of the Israel National Police; French-speaking Dream Doctors medical clown Emmanuel Hannoun; and Michael Shkolnikov, an emergency medical technician who’s joined Israeli search-and-rescue missions in Africa.
The day before the team left Israel, Turkey launched an invasion against Syrian Kurds. IFA immediately began raising money to get medications and winter clothing to the Kurds, a project still in progress with a local NGO.
‘It’s really awful’
Landing in Chad, IFA’s team was escorted for their safety by local English-speaking volunteers from FGC. They started by assessing needs in hospitals and refugee camps in the north and near Lake Chad. Many refugees are victims of Boko Haram.
“We met a 13-year-old girl who was raped. She was not speaking; she was just sitting with others who had been raped. Some of them were pregnant. It was sickening to see,” says Lusky.
“Luckily, she was able to get the day-after [contraceptive] pill and anti-AIDS treatment, but her life is ruined. She will never be able to marry. It’s really awful.”
Dvir told ISRAEL21c that “seeing so many miserable young girls suffering as a result of Boko Haram’s extreme cruelty” challenged his faith and changed his perspective on life.
“The needs are so big, and we can’t help everybody,” says Dvir. “But our sages say that if you save one person it’s like saving the whole world. Gal has been doing this for 25 years out of the goodness of her heart and she does it with so much motivation and eagerness.”
In Chad, as in much of Africa, a major health problem is obstetric fistula. This is a hole between the genital and urinary tract or rectum caused by the young age of the mothers and difficulty in childbirth.
Global Gateway Network will soon provide gynecological equipment to treat fistula victims in Chad. Lusky hopes eventually to outfit a full fistula treatment center.
Among the equipment IFA has already provided to Chad are ventilators, wheelchairs, crutches, treadmills, nurses’ carts, bandages, exam tables, disposable birth kits, blood donation kits and blood storage bags.
“We want to bring 60 electric oxygen generators to the hospitals,” says Lusky. “They only have oxygen tanks that are too expensive for them to fill. Oxygen generators are really crucial to save lives, from the neonatal intensive care ward to burn wards.”
The manager of a maternity hospital told the IFA delegation that many babies are abandoned by HIV-positive mothers or due to birth defects. Lusky asked what happens to these babies.
“The manager said one nurse has taken in nine babies since 2011. She has nine children of her own and she’s divorced. She earns $600 per month and cares for all these children with no electricity.”
IFA immediately packed up solar panels, school supplies, rice, lentils and other food, and headed over.
When they saw the nurse, they recognized her from the hospital. Just the day before, Dream Doctor Hannoun had managed to bring a smile to the nurse’s careworn face.
Now they could see how she and her older children struggled to care for so many kids in 40 square meters.
“Her biggest need is fencing in her home for security,” Lusky says. “Girls are being raped daily in Chad, so they don’t even put windows in the houses.”
The second orphanage they visited was Sephora’s. Her 105 charges range in age from six months to 18 years.
“Sephora was herself an orphan. Her aunt took her in but didn’t give her a decent childhood,” Lusky relates.
“She had promised herself she’d take tons of orphans under her roof and give them a better chance than her aunt gave her. She even has a primary school there and all the kids are neatly dressed in uniforms.”
Feeding the kids is the hardest part of Sephora’s job, and IFA has eased it considerably.
“I asked what else she needed, like soap and toothbrushes, and she said, ‘I don’t even dream about that,’” Lusky says. “We will bring her all of this as well as more solar panels.”
Indeed, IFA is already fundraising for the next trip to Chad in May, to coincide with the arrival of three containers full of supplies. American Christian organization Gleanings for the Hungry is providing high-nutrition foodstuffs.
“Maybe we’ll take Israeli chefs along to cook for our partners. We are a rare group of Christians, Muslims and Jews,” notes Lusky.
To find out how you can help Israeli Flying Aid, email firstname.lastname@example.org.