Watching an expert salsa dancer strutting his stuff takes on a whole new power when it comes with a story like George’s, in a setting like Haiti.
George appears in a video shown locally last week by Gideon Herscher, the director of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s relief operations in Haiti.
In the video, George dances with a grace that might make a viewer forget that one of his legs was amputated after he was crushed in a building’s collapse during Haiti’s massive earthquake in January 2010.
As Herscher explained to an audience at the Jewish Federation of Central New Jersey, George was one of the first patients to be treated by the state-of-the-art rehabilitation clinic and prosthetic lab set up by JDC, Israel’s Tel Hashomer Hospital, and Magen David Adom in the wake of the catastrophe.
Over the past year, about 150 people have been treated at the center and by its occupational therapists in the field. By 2012, Herscher said, around 800 of the disabled “will have had their lives deeply touched, if not revolutionized” as a result of JDC’s aid.
Herscher and his host, Dov Ben-Shimon, JDC’s executive director of strategic partnerships, were in Scotch Plains to report on JDC’s work of the past year, largely funded with the $8 million donated through the Jewish Federations of North America, which includes the Central federation, and thousands of individual donors.
Herscher said that the Haitian effort comes in the context of JDC’s work in Israel and 70 other countries, most recently in Japan.
‘We are inseparable’
Describing the video, Herscher said George was on the fifth floor of a school building when the quake struck. The floors pancaked and he plunged with them but found himself standing on a surviving pillar of masonry, while 54 others lay crushed below him. He tumbled off the pillar, and it collapsed on him, crushing a leg. His father found him the following day, lying in the rubble among his dead friends.
Almost as soon as his head cleared, George knew that his leg would have to be amputated. He had been a leading salsa dancer and a teacher; now he faced the likelihood that he would never dance again.
But thanks to the medical care he received and his own determination, six months later he can be seen on that video strapping on his prosthetic limb, walking with easy grace without a crutch, and then swinging into a dance as nimbly as any two-legged person.
Herscher told the Central audience that George made a point of telling him his story over and over again.
“He said he knows who we are and what our narrative is. He knows that most of the time, when we were in need, no one came to help us, and — despite that — we did come. That is how we are changing our own narrative, through tikun, repairing. He says, ‘Now we are inseparable.’ We are a part of him, and he is a part of us.”
In addition to stories like George’s, what inspires those laboring to help the Haitians, Herscher said, is Israel’s historic debt to Haiti for taking in people escaping the Holocaust, and, in 1947, at the United Nations, for voting in favor of the state’s establishment.
Herscher was based in Haiti for six grueling months and goes back to visit periodically. But he emphasized with satisfaction that JDC is phasing out its presence there. “We’re not spending any money on rent or infrastructure,” he said. “All our work is being done through our partners on the ground in Haiti.”
One of their projects is intended to restore the mental health of children traumatized by the quake and get them back into the normalcy of a school routine. The JDC helped place 3,000 children in 10 schools. “They were the only kids,” he said, “who managed to graduate from their grade level last year.”
JDC is also training some 1,400 masons — most of them illiterate — in safe construction techniques.
One of those men thanked the JDC teacher for giving him back “his spot at the table,” restoring his confidence and sense of purpose.
Herscher said JDC has also been involved in combating cholera after the outbreak last year, funding local medical teams to teach people how to avoid the illness and treating those who were infected, and it sent medical supplies and equipment for clinics.
He was cautiously optimistic about the country’s future. “$12 billion worth of aid has been pledged,” he said. “With so much money flowing in, Haiti has a chance to rebuild — so long as history doesn’t repeat itself.”