Helping children across boundaries

Bayit Ham and Akamasoa: Worlds apart, with similar goals

Father Pedro Opeka in Madagascar (photo credit: COURTESY AKAMASOA)
Father Pedro Opeka in Madagascar
(photo credit: COURTESY AKAMASOA)
In November, wealthy Frenchmen in Paris – both Christians and Jews – attended a fund-raising dinner to support the poor and underprivileged in two entirely unrelated countries, Israel and Madagascar. The benefit was for the Israeli initiative Bayit Ham (Warm House) and the Malagasy NGO Akamasoa – two separate organizations with the similar and praiseworthy goals of getting kids off the streets and providing them with a sense of respect, dignity and security.
The dinner raised €250,000 from 15 Jewish and Christian couples. The proceeds were donated equally between Bayit Ham and Akamasoa. The event took place less than two weeks after the deadly November 13 terrorist attacks in Paris, and organizers said they were concerned that no one would show up to the dinner. “But to our surprise, we succeeded in filling the room and it was really a ray of sunshine,” says Warm House Foundation co-founder Jean Arvis.
What are the benefits of drawing from the resources of two communities and then dividing it in half? “Cooperating is a message,” says Nicolas Weiss, the other co-founder of Warm House. “We don’t just want to be in our own community, we don’t only want to help our brothers and sisters, but also our cousins. And there is your 1+1=3.”
“If you think about it,” Weiss continues, “we’re getting Christians in France to give money to Israel, this is a message – particularly in an anti-Semitic atmosphere.
It’s a strong message coming from the French community that we are not part of that anti-Semitic atmosphere.”
Weiss was in fact the link that brought together the French-Jewish psychoanalyst and supporter of Bayit Ham, Henri Cohen Solal, and the Argentinean Catholic priest who founded Akamasoa, Father Pedro Opeka.
Cohen Solal and Weiss had been acquainted for years via the Jewish philanthropic community in France.
During one of their encounters in Mauritius – where Weiss lives and where Cohen Solal was running a mediation training course – the former told the latter about Father Opeka. Weiss had learned about Opeka, a Legion of Honor recipient, from a taxi driver during a business trip to Madagascar. The driver told him that he was an important man whom he must meet, and Weiss obliged.
Impressed by what he saw, Weiss in turn invited Cohen Solal to join him on his next trip to Madagascar, to meet the priest and visit Akamasoa projects – a proposal gladly accepted by the French-Israeli activist, always keen to meet other people involved in social work. An instant connection was formed between the two men, who compared notes on their humanitarian missions.
Though the two NGOs take different approaches and exist in different realities, the leaders of both associations agree that they share a joint ideology. “It’s the same desire to take children off the streets and give them a feeling of security and respect,” says Cohen Solal.
BAYIT HAM was established in Jerusalem in 1981 by new French immigrants applying a psychosocial approach to help at-risk youth. Their staff comprises professionals in psychology, medicine, education and psychotherapy. They have 30 “warm houses” around Israel, to provide to vulnerable youth, as well as adults and families, a safe haven and encounter space. The NGO also works to facilitate their reconciliation with institutions and with society, and to accompany them in building their future.
Far south of Israel, Akamasoa began in Madagascar in 1989 at the initiative of Pedro Opeka. Father Opeka had already been working in services for the poor since he had moved to Madagascar 16 years prior. Akamasoa, which means “the good and faithful friends,” helped streamline his charitable work.
Today, Akamasoa sustains some 30,000 people in 18 villages, with 10,000 children enrolled in 37 schools that the organization helped develop. An additional 900,000 Malagasy people have been supported for between one day to three weeks in Akamasoa “welcome centers,” where they are offered food, shelter, clothes and small packages to help give them a fresh start at life.
More than 3,600 jobs have been created for the villagers and are being paid by Akamasoa each month. “Madagascar is a beautiful country, very welcoming, but [with] extreme poverty – 25% of its people are poor. I think it’s my duty to help people in Madagascar,” says Father Opeka.
Father Opeka seeks to persuade wealthy people in developed countries about the importance of their support of this cause, traveling every year to the US, the EU, and now Israel, to “awaken the consciences of those who have the resources at their fingertips to help humanitarian associations.” He highlights that Madagascar is among the 10 poorest countries in the world – in the company of nine other African countries. Opeka opines that European countries should help the poorest countries in the world “as soon as possible,” so that Africans stay in their own countries, rather than further aggravating the global economic refugee crisis.
WEISS WAS struck by the work of both his Malagasy and Israeli friends, and set about to help their causes.
“Approximately three years ago Nicolas [Weiss] called me and told me to come for a meeting with two guys,” Arvis explains.
The two were old friends from business school in Paris. Weiss had also been treasurer and director of the Rothschild Foundation for many years. What impressed him about Bayit Ham and Akamasoa was their efficiency, more so than other NGOs he had seen.
“They [Cohel Solal and Opeka] explained to me what they did, and Nicolas told me that we must help them,” Arvis continues. “One is a Jew, very generous and well-known in Israel, and the other a Catholic priest who is like the Mother Teresa of Madagascar. Two different religions, but they share immense generosity.”
Arvis and Weiss then began the philanthropic Warm Houses Foundation, in order to support the Israeli and Malagasy initiatives.
Sitting with the Magazine in the lobby of the Leonardo Basel Hotel in Tel Aviv, the four gathered at the beginning of the month to discuss future fund-raising plans in Israel – and to give Father Opeka a tour of the Holy Land and a visit to Bayit Ham centers.
“We share the same humanist vision of life,” says Weiss. “And our partnership also serves as a connection between the Jewish world and the Christian world.”
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