On his first visit to Israel, American actor and humanitarian activist Sean Penn declared that the work of his nonprofit J/P Haitian Relief Organization has succeeded largely because of its cooperation with volunteers from IsraAID-The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid.
“The indirect impact of IsraAID is that everything that JP/HRO has accomplished would not have existed without the inspiration and support that they provided,” said Penn, the keynote speaker at IsraAID’s November 30 conference in Tel Aviv, “Can Haiti Grow? Haiti and Israel Partners in Recovery and Development.”
Following the program, IsraAID introduced Penn to representatives of eight Israeli startups that offer technologies in agriculture, water and solar power to developing nations.
The conference was geared to raising awareness about the current situation in Haiti nearly six years after the 7.0-magnitude earthquake that devastated the impoverished island country on Jan. 12, 2010.
Israel was among the first countries to send humanitarian aid. The Foreign Ministry flew over 236 military, security, rescue and medical personnel that set up the first field hospital to treat victims. The delegation included a search-and-rescue and victim identification team from ZAKA; prosthetics maker Yehuda Pilosof from Rishon LeZion; and a 12- member medical team of IsraAID volunteers.
IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi told ISRAEL21c that his team was introduced to Penn by IsraAID’s goodwill ambassador, Hollywood actress Moran Atias, who accompanied Penn to Haiti in the aftermath of the disaster in which at least 230,000 Haitians lost their lives and 300,000 were injured.
“Our mission was to spend a few weeks in Haiti as a 24/7 delivery service for drugs for the hospitals that needed them,” Penn told the audience in Tel Aviv. However, like IsraAID, he decided to remain there to help organize long-term relief efforts.
IsraAID and J/P HRO worked together for a few years in J/P HRO’s refugee camp in Port-au-Prince, where they established a school. Penn’s organization also runs a clinic and community center in Haiti, among other projects.
Several international aid organizations remain active in Haiti, but IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi tells ISRAEL21c that his NGO is the only Israeli one still there. “We have two volunteers on the ground, and professionals coming in and out constantly,” says Zahavi.
The Israelis identified specific niches in trauma and post-trauma care where Israeli knowhow can be uniquely helpful, he explains. These include a medical facility, psycho-social support groups, a Haiti Grows agriculture program, a youth empowerment center and a gender-violence program for women who suffered abuse in tent cities after the quake.
Gradually, each of these programs is being turned over to Haitian NGOs in keeping with IsraAID’s policy of establishing an infrastructure to rehabilitate affected communities and training local residents to run them in the long term.
“We still have a contribution to make,” says Zahavi, who is showing Penn around Israel for the next two days. “We have some cooperation with his group, and we will see what else we can do to enhance our work with J/P. How much longer we stay in Haiti may depend on our development with Sean’s group.”
Penn said his NGO plans to launch a $300 million reforestation project next year to further assist Haiti in rebuilding its shattered economy. He called Haiti “a special place” and encouraged others to come help in reconstruction and rehabilitation projects. “We started, IsraAID started, I’d like you all to start,” he told the audience at the Dan Panorama Hotel.
Zahavi echoes that sentiment. “Billions of dollars were spent in Haiti, some wisely and some not, and it has a lot of potential for growth. There are very smart people there, and it’s a country that has been neglected for years even before the earthquake.”
Other speakers at the conference, which was supported by the Pratt Foundation, included Dr. Nachman Ash, IDF Chief Medical Officer at the time of the quake, who headed the IDF field hospital in Haiti; Danny Biran of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs; Dr. Efraim Laor, head of IsraAID’s delegation to Haiti in 2010; former Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe; and IsraAID’s Dr. Diddy Mymin Kahn, who discussed the gender-violence program.
Penn also met with former Israeli President Shimon Peres during his visit. Peres reportedly told the Academy Award-winning actor: “I saw the Mystic River and Milk, but the real Oscars go to you for what you have done in Haiti.”