Two days after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti last January, Israeli aircraft landed in Port-au-Prince, carrying a rescue team of 300 and enough medical equipment to create a replica of Israel’s finest field hospitals.
Leading the mission’s advance team was Daniel Biran, ambassador of administrative affairs at the Consulate General of Israel in New York. Biran shared his experiences with some 50 people at an Oct. 17 program at the Chabad House of Western Monmouth County in Manalapan.
“Although Israel is a 16-hour flight from Haiti, we were the first to arrive in Port-au-Prince,” Biran told the audience. “We were the only country that gave the green light to send planes without even knowing where we would land.”
The advance team first arrived in the Dominican Republic, where they boarded a U.S. army helicopter. They were dropped in an open field in Port-au-Prince, just before dusk. With no ground communication and in total darkness, the Israeli team members walked to the U.S. Embassy, where they arranged for transportation to the airport to coordinate the landing of Israeli planes.
The State of Israel Medical Corps Hospital was set up in the backyard of a property owned by Syrian-Jewish businessman Gilbert Bigio, an honorary consul for Israel in Haiti.
The team worked around the clock for three weeks, said Biran, treating 1,100 people, performing 370 life-saving surgeries, rescuing four survivors from the wreckage, and delivering 16 babies.
“The mother of the first baby to be born in our field hospital was so grateful she named her baby ‘Israel,’” Biran said.
In a slideshow of images from the rescue mission, Biran paused on a photo depicting hundreds of hands reaching for help and begging for water. “This photo, more than any other, illustrates how hopeless the people felt because no one was helping them until we arrived,” he said.
Biran described the arrival at the field hospital of two severely wounded young sisters, who were speechless with confusion and shock. “They had no idea where their parents were. The first thing our team did was give them a hug. I will never forget the look of relief on their faces. As a father of three daughters, I cannot even imagine what these girls had endured,” he said.
The Israelis appealed to Chabad in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, as well as the New York Jewish community, for food. “Within an hour we had nearly $20,000 worth of kosher food on the way from New York to Santo Domingo,” said Biran. “We made regular trips to Santo Domingo to pick up the supplies. We delivered more than 90,000 bottles of water to the field hospital.
“We soon became the best hotel and restaurant in town, feeding up to 1,200 people a day.”
As temperatures soared close to 100 degrees, the Israelis rigged up an air-conditioner to cool the open-air hospital, sparking incredulous looks from patients.
“I admire my country and what we did,” Biran said. “It was very meaningful for me as an Israeli Jew to help people and give them hope.”
Israel’s rescue mission was a “great sanctification of God’s name,” said Chabad House director Rabbi Boruch Chazanow.
“Israel’s mission to Haiti parallels a founding principle of the State of Israel, to share its expertise to help other nations,” said Monica Agor of Marlboro, a retired New York City teacher who attended the lecture. “In spite of all the adversity that Israel has to deal with, it continues to put great effort into helping nations in need. At this time when Arab nations question the legitimacy of the State of Israel, everything Israel has done for other nations should certainly legitimize its existence.”
Hearing about the rescue mission brought up mixed emotions for Meir Lieblich of Monroe. “It makes me proud, but I have reservations about Israelis embarking on these missions around the world. It is such a big, expensive undertaking for such a small country,” said Lieblich.
“On the other hand, I am a second-generation Holocaust survivor. The world stood by and did nothing. It is very noble for us to help others, even when it is extremely expensive and dangerous.”