On Day 10 of the Israeli mission in Haiti, Danny Biran paused during a phone conversation as a helicopter hovered above him.
“He’s looking for a place to land,” said Biran, an official of Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs who has been in Haiti since 36 hours after the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Even with rescue efforts winding down last Friday, as search teams reluctantly gave up hope of pulling more survivors out of the rubble, casualties were still trickling into Israel’s medical facility, which is located outside Port-au-Prince and has received positive attention from the world’s media.
“The main problem is transportation,” said Biran, the counselor of administrative affairs at Israel’s Washington embassy since 2000. “For people who have, let’s say, lost a leg, it’s difficult for them to get here. So it has taken a couple of days before they were brought here.”
Biran said there had been three aftershocks since the initial devastating 7.0 quake that leveled much of Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. The Israeli team has been ordered to stay within the compound.
Just prior to taking a call from a reporter, Biran took a tour of Port-au-Prince with other emergency workers and found that some signs of normality were “slowly, slowly” coming back. But, he adds, “You have to remember that before the earthquake this was a city with a lot of poor people who didn’t have anything.”
He said morale among the Israeli personnel, which includes 40 doctors and 20 nurses and medics, was suffering. “It’s very hard. The scenery is not pleasant. We are giving, I would say, the best treatment for those who have kids and families who don’t have anywhere else to go. We are trying to coordinate with other hospitals. We are coordinating with the U.S. Army field hospital here in Port-au-Prince. We are taking care that every wounded person at least will get shelter. When they don’t know what the future is, at least we are making an effort to help them.”
(The IDF said this week that Israel’s delegation would likely leave Haiti on Thursday, as additional aid forces have arrived to provide regular medical assistance. The delegation, which left for Haiti on Jan. 15, three days after the devastating earthquake, has treated more than 960 patients, conducted 294 successful surgeries and delivered 16 babies, including three by Caesarean section, according to the IDF.)
The Israeli hospital was set on property owned by Gilbert Bigio, a Jewish businessman and honorary consul for Israel who is a leader of the tiny Haitian Jewish community, said to be as small as 50 people. Bigio’s father came to Haiti from Aleppo, Syria, during World War I and started a successful business exporting cotton, cacao and other materials, Bigio told JTA in 2007.
“He has a huge complex here with some factories, and in the middle of it there is a football yard, so we established the hospital here,” said Biran. “It’s a good place for helicopters to land and ambulances to enter. Security is a concern here.” While most of Port-au-Prince is still without power, the hospital is powered by gas generators.
About twice a day, truck convoys have been crossing the border from Israel’s embassy in Santo Domingo in the neighboring Dominican Republic, which was not affected by the earthquake. The trucks are laden mostly with food and water to feed the Israeli staff and hundreds of patients and family members. “We thought we would be feeding some 200 to 250 people, but by now it is more than 400 people a day,” says Biran.
It is a journey of about eight hours with constant risk from hijackers as the security situation worsens and food and water become more scarce. The embassy has hired local security guards to accompany the trucks.
“We are doing our best to handle the logistics,” said Biran. “We are working the Israeli way — we’ve had to improvise.”
Manhattan native makes second rescue trip.
Steve Lipman - Staff Writer
The flight began with TefillatHaDerech.
Marc Eisenmann, the owner of an assisted-living facility in Florida who has become an international humanitarian since a deadly earthquake struck Haiti two weeks ago, recited the traditional traveler’s prayer during his flight’s takeoff for Port-au-Prince last week.
It was his second trip to Haiti in two weeks.
The first time, the day after the earthquake, the Manhattan native and veteran Hatzolah emergency ambulance worker, went to lend his medical expertise.
This time, he went to reunite the Haitian family whose badly injured son he had brought back to Miami for life-saving surgery at Holtz Children’s Hospital. Eisenmann had brought 5-year-old Gancci Saintellus, and the child’s father, Olgan, leaving the family’s mother and two other young children back in Haiti.
“It was really nagging at me,” Eisenmann tells The Jewish Week in a telephone interview. “Because of my actions, I split up this family.”
To bring the family back together, in Miami, where Gancci is recovering, he raised funds for his mission from Lincoln Square Synagogue on the Upper West Side, his childhood congregation, and Erik Mascher, a friend from New Jersey, who also contributed; he recruited a physician to accompany him — Dr. Arthur Palamara, a vascular surgeon from Hollywood, Fla.; and he found space on a Haiti-bound flight — Sky King Airlines had flown Eisenmann and the two Saintelluses from Port-au-Prince the previous week.
Eisenmann, who keeps kosher, departed last week with “some granola bars” and “a pile of medical supplies” for medical personnel in Haiti.
A Haitian-born staff member of Eisenmann’s assisted-living facility who had accompanied Eisenmann the week before and stayed behind, arranged for the remaining members of the Saintellus family to be waiting outside a car rental office.
On the return flight, two hours later, accompanied by his employee and the man’s nephew, Eisenmann and Gancci’s mother and siblings sat among refugees and evacuees, many of whom had lost relatives in the tragedy. “It was a very somber flight,” he said. “I handed out the last of the granola bars.”
At the Miami airport, everyone piled into Eisenmann’s SUV. First stop: the hospital, where Gancci is recuperating from amputation surgery. The Saintellus family will stay at a nearby Ronald McDonald’s House during Gancci’s recovery, and the city’s Mormon community will offer moral support, Eisenmann says.
Eisenmann’s exploits the last fortnight are “extraordinary,” says Joe Blank, executive director of Lincoln Square Synagogue. “We all grew up with him. It’s not surprising that he would do something like this.”
With the Saintellus family reunited, and his staff member back in the States, is Eisenmann’s work in Haiti done?
Maybe not, he says. Now he knows his way around the stricken country. “I would be willing to jump on a plane any moment.”
This Shabbat, he’ll be back in synagogue. A frequent flyer, he doesn’t usually recite the gomel blessing of thanksgiving that many traditional Jews do after crossing an ocean — air traffic is usually safe, he says.
His last two trips to Haiti, however, were not usual.
“This week in shul,” he says, “I bentsch [make the blessing] gomel.” n
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