Haiti: 2 local Jews helping Israeli aid

Expatriate IDF veteran, son of Syrian emigrants play invaluable roles behind the scenes.

January 20, 2010 04:54
4 minute read.
Haitians reach towards aid being dispensed from th

haitians reach for aid AP 311. (photo credit: AP)


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One is the wealthy Jewish scion of a Haitian business magnate; the other is an Israeli entrepreneur and photographer who has lived here for 19 years.

One donated a football field-sized space to house the IDF field hospital; the other is working in the trenches, gathering tips about possible earthquake survivors and translating between Haitians and IDF rescue squads.

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Both Reuven Shalom Bigio and Daniel Kedar - Jews who have lived in Haiti for years - are working behind the scenes to support Israel's mission in the Caribbean nation.

"These two guys assisted in such a way that made us look so good," Israeli Ambassador Amos Radian told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.

The two expatriates were at the Israel base to go over the arrival of more IDF personnel (Bigio) and to coordinate a possible rescue mission (Kedar).

Radian said he was at home in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, when the earthquake hit a week ago, and felt his house shake "like mad" for 40 minutes. Hours later, he hitched a ride to Port-au-Prince with a team from CBS News.

He found Bigio at a hotel on January 14, a day before the Israeli aid mission was set to arrive, and said to him: "Tomorrow the Israel Air Force is coming with two jets and 250 people and I have no place to put them."

Bigio's response was immediate.

"He said, 'Tell me what you need,'" the ambassador said, and by 8 a.m. the following day, the two met at an industrial park in Port-au-Prince owned by the Bigio family, along with members of the IDF Home Front Command's advance team.

Bigio, dressed elegantly in jeans and a navy Brooks Brothers shirt, said he remembers thinking at the time that setting up the IDF camp simply had to work.

"People need help," he said. "We need to be there."

The 37-year-old is the son of magnate Gilbert Bigio, a Syrian Jew and honorary consul for Israel whose business - the GB Group - does more than $700 million in sales each year. Gilbert Bigio's own father came to Haiti in 1925 and was active in the Jewish community. He played a role in Haiti's support for Israeli statehood in the November 1947 vote at the United Nations.

"Being in a city where there's no synagogue, prayers are done at our house, Israel to us is the motherland. It's the rock. It's how we identify ourselves," said Reuven Bigio. His father's support for Israel's mission here was immediate: "His desire to help was unconditional."

Playing an altogether different role in the Israeli response, Kedar, 49, was on an airplane to Israel when the earthquake struck. Having served in the IDF's Special Protection Unit, he immediately hooked up with army officials when he landed.

"These soldiers from the special protective unit," he said, gesturing to young men at the IDF base on Tuesday, "are the sons of people who served with me in the army."

He offered the army a peerless guide to Haiti, one who knows his way around the city and speaks fluent Hebrew, French, Creole and English.

On Tuesday afternoon, Kedar moved around the base at a frenetic pace, handling two cellphones, a satellite phone and a list of tasks. Among them: to greet the family of a woman brought to the hospital after being trapped for six days in the rubble of a university.

"It's the most sordid of sites we've seen," he said after stopping to squeeze the woman's hand.

Kedar says he has become a "de facto coordinator" for Israeli forces in Haiti.

"I speak the language and I know the streets," he said.

It was Kedar who gave his personal phone number to a local radio station after the earthquake and asked people with tips about survivors' whereabouts to call him. Kedar said he had gotten a tip about the 52-year-old man rescued on Sunday by the IDF, which pinpointed his whereabouts after the man was able to send a text message on his cellphone.

Kedar also translates. On Monday, he worked in the rubble with a six-man IDF rescue squad that spent nearly eight futile hours searching for a girl thought to be buried under her aunt's home. His primary task was translating between the soldiers and the child's family, who gave soldiers information about the layout of the apartment so that they could get a better sense of where to look.

Kedar moved to Haiti 19 years ago for business reasons, and is married to Maryse Penette Kedar, a former Haitian tourism minister. He said he was using all of his local contacts to help the IDF effort, including getting water tanks delivered and having police stationed at the gate to the field hospital.

"We all want to help when there's a crisis and we're frustrated by our inability to do so," he said. "You know people are dying left, right and center, so it's very frustrating."

He has found a unique role in the aftermath of the earthquake.

"Here, I can give myself, 24/7, and everything I do is helping," he said.

He has been sleeping about three hours a night.

"I sleep much better than I ever did," he said.

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