The power of giving: a mission to Ethiopia to bestow the gift of sight

“We live once; this is not a rehearsal. Make it count.”

An Israeli medical mission to Ethiopia to bestow the gift of sight   (photo credit: ALON HANANYA)
An Israeli medical mission to Ethiopia to bestow the gift of sight
(photo credit: ALON HANANYA)
For the eighth consecutive year, an Israeli medical delegation set out for rural areas in Ethiopia to perform much-needed eye surgeries.
I have come to realize that with every journey, new lessons are learned, extraordinary people become a part of my life, my eyes and soul encounter complex situations from which I only grow and which, it is to be hoped, make me a better person.
We learned early on that it is more rewarding to give than to receive. We were taught to give, and it felt good to help someone in need. But is there a deeper current to giving? The delegation is led by philanthropist Morris Kahn. What drives Kahn, at the age of 88, to go back to the scene of devastation and help, when it is far easier to remain in the comfort of his home and never return to Ethiopia? When I asked him this question, he answered: “I can’t only sign a check.... Giving my time, sharing my talents and being actively involved is the way to find a higher purpose, transcend difficulties and achieve fulfillment and meaning in life.”
We had a bumpy start, as when we landed in Addis Ababa we were informed that we did not have a permit to fly to Jinka. The rumors hinted at political and security tensions, which led to the suspension of internal flights in the country.
We weren’t told if or when we would get a permit, so we had to spend the night in Addis Ababa, frustrated by the fact that we knew that each day counted – even a slight delay meant treating fewer patients.
Kahn did not hesitate for a minute – he decided to rent a local plane for the following morning: “We are here for one purpose: to give people sight. People are counting on us, and I will do whatever it takes to achieve this purpose.”
The following day we started making our way to Turmi, a town in southwestern Ethiopia.
The decision to operate in Turmi this past February was made after learning that the tribes people, who suffer terribly from trachoma and cataracts, which cause blindness, aren’t always willing to be taken to Jinka.
Surgical procedures began early in the morning and continued into the late hours of the night. Concurrently, another team set out to conduct eye examinations, after having negotiated access with the head of the tribe. The team screened those in need of medical attention and decided who was eligible for the surgery. The hurdles were not only medical; the mothers feared that the “white people” would kidnap their children, and the men feared that their wives would be abducted.
Once the team concluded a list of patients, we drove them to the hospital.
The first day of surgery began. The clinic was a dilapidated building with three operating rooms: one in the hallway, one in a small cubicle, and the third in a room where two surgical procedures were performed simultaneously. The waiting area was filled with people, young and old, who couldn’t see, yet their eyes were full of hope.
One by one we brought them in for surgery – each procedure took about 20 minutes. They lay silent on the operating table, releasing a tear of fear; but that is all they allowed themselves to shed: one tear.
They decided to trust us. They were overwhelmed, paralyzed with fear. I held their hands, to give them a feeling of warmth and love.
The surgeons began operating with incredible skill and agility. The anesthesia was local; in some procedures, no anesthesia was required at all.
One couldn’t help but think: What was going through the patients’ minds? Did they understand that, within such a short time, they would see again, or perhaps see for the first time in their lives? Each procedure had its own story, was a world of its own; no two were the same, and each of the patients was treated as though he were the only one.
The “ceremony” of removing the bandages is my favorite part – you can never guess what the reaction will be. As the patients slowly opened their eyes, we all stood around praying and waiting for a sign that the surgery was successful and that another pair of eyes could see the world.
Batlelem is an eight-year-old girl who was blind before she underwent surgery. In her case, I decided to look at her father’s reaction to his daughter seeing for the first time. The medical team gave them both life. I looked into his eyes – we couldn’t speak because of the language barrier – but I understood exactly what he was saying: He has gotten his life back. His little girl is now free to live her life and is no longer dependent on him to serve as her eyes. He no longer needs to hold her hand, only to love her and guide her.
After four days of surgery in Turmi, we returned to Jinka. Volunteers Amira Low and May Ben-Zion urged us to visit the Omo Child shelter. We came bearing gifts for these children, who we thought had been abandoned. However, we found that this was not the case; these were Mingi children, a label I find very difficult to even put down on paper. These are infants and children who, born with abnormalities, are believed to be ritually impure and cursed, and are therefore sentenced to death.
We had the privilege to meet Lale Labuko, founder of the Omo Child shelter – a true leader, a man with a heart of gold who cares for Mingi children and takes action to end the practice of their ritual killing.
One of the things I admire most about Kahn is the fact that his heart and eyes are always wide open. Once he became aware of the Omo Child shelter in Jinka, he could not keep silent. With tears rolling down his cheeks, he said: “Let’s see what we can do to help them,” and so he did.
The original purpose of our trip was clear – to give the gift of sight to those who would otherwise be condemned to blindness for life; but this time it was also about saving the lives of the Mingi children.
That the number eight followed us this year is not coincidental – it symbolizes eternity, power and hope.
On our way back home, with an eight hour flight ahead of us, I asked Kahn to write his insights and thoughts.
He named each and every member of the delegation: Film producer Alon Hananya, a co-founder of the project; Dr. Itai Ben-Zion, ophthalmologist and a co-founder of the project; May Ben-Zion, volunteer; Amira Low, volunteer, Tzahi Kimchi, optometrist; Dr. Dafna Pratt, ophthalmologist; Prof. Guy Ben Simon, ophthalmic surgeon; and Motti Sharf, adviser to Kahn – and he then concluded: “Without them, all of this would not be possible. They are special people who are willing to make a change in the world. I admire them, I thank them.
“Always surround yourself with people who do good things, and people who are good for you.
“We live once; this is not a rehearsal. Make it count.”