Israel's humanitarian heroine

Gal Lusky Photo: Ilya Melnikov

From Syria to Pakistan, Israeli Flying Aid founder Gal Lusky tells "Lady Globes" why she risks her life to help victims of war in countries that are enemies of Israel.

On the wall of the entrance of Gal Lusky's office in Tel Aviv is a map of the world made of out pieces of colorful wallpaper with different textures and joyful colors. The main wall depicts women and children framed in light and soft pink, blue, and green. Nothing about the map indicates that Lusky is marking only areas of conflict and disaster and the human scars and suffering born by the gaunt bodies in the pictures - survivors of these regions.

"There were times when I returned from aid missions and was incapable of going home. I was overcome by feelings for several days, and I knew that I was unable to immediately return to my regular life. Instead of running back to my family, I rented a room on the Golan Heights for a few days. I watched my home from there from far away and thought in isolation about my experience, until I was able to go back to ordinary life," Lusky tells "Lady Globes."

Lusky founded Israeli Flying Aid (IFA), a non-profit Israeli organization, in 2005. Since then, she has headed rescue missions to many areas, including tsunami-hit Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia, Iraq, Kashmir, and Darfur in Sudan. She crosses borders into conflict-ridden non-democratic enemy countries to help civilians in disregard of her own safety.

"Globes": Aren't you afraid of dying?

Lusky: "Of course, I'm scared to death. It's a paralyzing fear. It's hard to maintain a cover story for an extended period. There's no way to know whether or not the team has been exposed, and it's hard to simulate situations of extreme stress at home. There's no way of making sure that one of the locals we work with won't become vulnerable and betray us in exchange for someone or something valuable to him or her. There's no limit to the dreadful possibilities. If I concentrated on that, I'd be unable to leave the house.

"The realization that bombings in war zones don't distinguish between combatants, civilians, and aid workers is also difficult. My team is composed completely of volunteers who in the blink of an eye left home, work, and family for the mission. Thinking about their safety keeps me awake at night. Had some of the people we helped known where we really came from, we probably wouldn't be here now."

What about your children? Their mother is going on missions in the knowledge that she might not come back.

"I've consulted with dozens of people over the years about whether there was a way to prepare my family for such a farewell, which can happen suddenly. It's not a farewell, God forbid, because of unexpected or ordinary death. It's a farewell because of death resulting from my choice. I've been through some tough stages with this over the years, but I eventually realized that my real and biggest fear was not of losing my life, but of the risk of living the rest of it without compassion."

Born on the wrong side

Lusky's organization has two main goals. One is delivering life-saving aid to people in countries having no diplomatic relations with Israel. The other focuses on people in countries that do not allow life-saving aid to enter following disasters or during conflicts. In these countries, the sovereign power uses disasters as a tool for denying medical treatment, deliberate starvation, etc.

To found an organization that saves lives and to lead it was not something planned in advance. "When I was young, I was sure that organizations were free to fly and help wherever it was needed. I found out that 99% of these organizations operate where it's easy and convenient and permitted under international law. In practice, there are many people without help suffering from malicious prevention of aid."

So a moment came that made you found your organization yourself

"The UN says that the decision about allowing humanitarian aid into a country with a disaster or conflict depends on the ruling sovereign. I couldn't be indifferent to the realization that a sovereign is entitled to turn a disaster into a weapon of mass destruction of children and women whose only sin is being born on the wrong side of the political map in their country. That's how I decided to found IFA.

"The sovereign in Syria is Assad. What motive does he have for agreeing to allow humanitarian aid to enter and reach the opposition? All he has to do is say, 'Thank you very much. Syria is getting along fine by itself; it needs no help.' Even worse, when Assad finally agreed to humanitarian aid, the US had to deliver it to him only, because he is, after all, the sovereign. You and I, through the annual dues paid to the UN from Israel's state budget, funded the transfer of humanitarian aid to Assad. We all have blood on our hands.

"We have to combat and eliminate this hypocrisy once and for all. Life-saving humanitarian aid has to be allowed to enter according to a picture of casualties and damage, not according to, 'I'm the ruler, only I get the aid, I distribute it only to those who support me.'

"It happens time after time, and not only in Syria. In Pakistan, for example, why should the wives and children of the Kashmir freedom fighters/rebels have to freeze to death in minus 12-degree temperatures after an earthquake? It also happened to the Tamils in Sri Lanka after the tsunami, and there are other places, too. The sovereign has a complete mandate from the UN to starve its civilians to death and prevent access to clean water and medical treatment following natural disasters, without a single condemnation by the UN Human Rights Council. The world is silent."

Lusky has not had to fly long hours and cross continents in order to save lives in recent years. One of the world's largest human disasters, which is causing unimaginable suffering to innocent civilians, is taking place right under our noses in Syria.

What is the situation now in Syria?

"There are three main wars taking place there simultaneously. One is a 10% Alawite minority that controls a population that is 80% Sunnis. The second is a religious war - the Shi'ite-Iranian attempt to take over the Sunni world in particular and Islam in general. The third is a war between the superpower blocs: the US, which chose to stay out, and Putin, who won it in advance."

The situation is complicated

"There are no good guys and bad guys in these wars; there are bad guys and very bad guys, and a never-ending struggle between interests. The US, whose policy is not to intervene openly, intervened only after an ISIS fighter of UK origin slaughtered people on Syrian territory in front of US cameras. Incidentally, numerically, it's important to realize that in coordinated air attacks, Putin murdered more innocent civilians than ISIS itself.

"Syria began this war with a population of 22 million people, and the country now has 13 million people. Opposition organizations estimate that 900,000 people were killed. The US simply stopped counting after reaching 500,000, or even fewer."

How did you cope with these thoughts when you returned home after your activity?

"I woke up in the morning, got my son up, gave him cornflakes the way he likes, made him a nice sandwich, took him to school, and went on my way to 'another life' that was completely different from my own life. It makes me realize that a mother in Syria does not have the chance to give her son three meals a day, make sure that he's dressed well for winter, or send him to school and know that he'll come back alive.

"We go out and come home, spend time again with our family, turn on the television, and see the reports about Syria on the news. Can you understand what goes through my head? My soul is on fire, and my first impulse it to take revenge on the people committing this horror against their own children. But the anger turns into compassion that motivates determined action to save innocent lives.

"Every time I return home, I'm frustrated about what we left behind because we ran out of time or money. It's hard to keep from feeling that although millions of dollars are involved, it's still a drop in the ocean. We focus on what we haven't yet managed to do. Unfortunately, we can't rest for even a minute to take satisfaction in a successful mission.

"We Israelis are geographically close, but we're far from understanding the human drama taking place on the backs of millions. Part of it is probably because we haven't stopped living our fears from past wars with the Syrians. In our collective memory, we're still there."

What aren't we seeing?

"We don't see entire families when an armed force breaks into their home, breaks down the doors, and confiscates everything that can be used in the war: food, equipment, mattresses, and blankets. They can't protest, because any resistance can end their lives. There are horrifying cases of rape - rape is a weapon in this war, and in many others. In order to make it more effective, it has to be seen: not necessarily in public, but leaving signs on the woman's body that cannot be concealed by her husband, children, or family.

"In most cases, a raped woman is considered impure and is driven out. If her husband is fighting on the other side of the country and she is living with his family, she is expelled immediately. Her children remain with the husband's family, and she is forbidden to see them forever. If she tries to contact them, she is murdered. Where will she go without money, without a home? How can she make a living, what will she eat, where will she sleep? She isn't even allowed to enter a mosque and pray to the same god to whom she prayed a minute earlier. She is regarded as a prostitute whom every man can take advantage of.

"Widows who refuse to remarry are also expelled. They are refused entry to the mosques in which most of the humanitarian aid in Syria is distributed in order to give more power to extremist Islam. People wait in line for hours for aid and have to listen to sermons and brainwashing the whole time. When such a woman goes there - a widow, often with her children - and people recognize her, they curse her at best, and at worst throw things at her. She is insulted, breaks out in tears, and disappears from the line without getting aid. We assigned an entire team to trace these women and inconspicuously bring them help without anyone knowing. As an unapologetic Israeli secular Zionist organization, we insisted on giving humanitarian aid exclusively in civilian places: schools, medical centers, or old bakeries - places accessible to everyone, with a focus on these women."

What happens to babies conceived from rape?

"It's terrible. 5% of raped women become pregnant. Most of them wrap up the baby, put it in a carton with tin foil to preserve its body heat, and in the absence of a functional municipal agency, leave it on the doorstep of the nearest military headquarters. What can an officer do with a day-old baby in a country with no welfare institutions? Some of the babies born to mothers who are minors are thrown in the garbage can in order to conceal the shame. 30% of them are strangled by the mother before breast feeding begins."

What do you think about the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip?

"In the Gaza Strip, there's no connection between what enters and what is distributed. Hamas is the sovereign. It keeps the humanitarian aid in its own hands. UNRWA (United National Relief Works Administration), which was founded to care for only Palestinian refugees, is responsible for distributing it. UNRWA should have been dismantled a long time ago, mainly for the sake of the Palestinians it is supposed to serve. The people employed there are local Palestinians whose lives and families are at the mercy of Hamas. What happens when Hamas wants to create 'pictures of want and distress' in the Gaza Strip as part of its contemptible propaganda against Israel and orders UNRWA to stop giving aid? How can you expect Gazans working at UNRWA to do their work well when their families' lives are at risk? There were a few heroes who tried, and were shot through their knees in public for their pains. It was completely clear to them that the next bullet would be aimed at someone from their families. Everyone knew and was silent.

"When the UN says that it is disturbed by the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip, it's just hypocrisy. Were it really concerned, it would dismantle UNRWA and bring in an external force that no one would dare lift a finger against, just like there is in every other country in the world. When somebody can guarantee that our humanitarian aid will reach the needy children themselves, without being used as a tool for manipulation against my country by Hamas, I'll build a warehouse next to the Erez border crossing."

Are you also active in Israel?

"Of course. For us, volunteering in Israel is a civic duty. Abroad, it's a choice, and this is our choice. Giving is a way of life, not something you do once. We all volunteer when there's an extreme situation in Israel, from military operations to fires. Our volunteers are selected on the basis of their many years of volunteering in Israel."

A routine is injustice

Lusky, 51, is married and mother of Bar, 21, and Tom, 3.5, who was born after 10 years of trying to conceive. She divides her time between Kibbutz Hukok, where she was born, and Tel Aviv, where her office is located. "Tom is learning in two kindergartens, one in Tel Aviv and one in Hukok. People on the kibbutz criticized me for this. They said, 'You can't do this to the child. He needs an ordinary life.' I answered that with all due respect to all of the educational theories, I think differently. A framework is essential, but a routine harms the child's ability to adjust, and therefore his or her emotional resilience."

A significant turning point in Lusky's life, which later made her the person she became and also dictated the path she took, was the wounding of her only brother in Lebanon in the summer of 1992. "After my brother was wounded, I felt that I had two options: spend my life taking revenge on those who hurt him, being angry at the world, and becoming an extremist; or becoming compassionate and seeing the privilege we had in being born in a strong and developed country with medical infrastructure unmatched in the Middle East.

"Yaron was evacuated by helicopter. He didn't spend half a day in a ground convoy; he was treated by amazing doctors who devoted themselves to making him well. With all the pain and anxiety about his health, I felt lucky to have been born here, and nowhere else in the world. I left the hospital determined to be there for people much less fortunate than I was. I packed my bag and went to Rwanda."

The path that she imagined was "ordinary:" studies, work, home, children, and occasional trips along the way to help in remote places. It did not work for her. Just like she had to go the limit of human suffering and cross borders and continents to provide compassion, she could not stop at giving life-saving help once in a while when it was available and convenient. "I had no control over this need. It was stronger than I was. But I had to stand courageously against a society that took a dim view and judged not only the path I chose in life, but also my motherhood. Even the people closest to me said, 'What you're doing is only for people with rich husbands or people who came from rich families and have a lot of free time.' I told them, 'Really? If your child or grandchild were now under a five-meter heap of rubble, would the families of the unit that could save him say what you're saying? But because it's not your child or grandchild, but somebody else's, it's all right for me to stay at home?'"

Not to be guests for even a moment

Lusky is an expert in turning the pain into reality changing action. When she repeatedly encountered the painful fate of babies, she decided to do something about it. "In our operations in Muslim countries, we were repeatedly aggrieved by a little-known fact - adoption in Islam is forbidden. For them, adopting a child violates a religious law, while international law says that the adoptive parents and the adopted child must be of the same religion. So if a Muslim isn't allowed to adopt a Muslim child and others aren't allowed to, what happens? There are millions of children in this situation."

Lusky and her team are now working on a new project: founding an orphanage for exactly these children in a Muslim country with which Israel has diplomatic relations.

"The moments of leaving a disaster-stricken area are deeply implanted in our hearts, and we all find it difficult to forget the children's tearful eyes. We longed for a project in which we wouldn't be temporary guests in the victims' lives, but a continuous and stable support, and would see them grow, mature, and become strong and prosperous. We made a strategic organizational decision to conduct a follow-up project focusing on the most vulnerable group in any civil society - orphan babies. In the country in question, the annual number of abandoned babies is around 30,000."

What causes this situation?

"Girls and women don't complain about rape inside or out of the family, in order to avoid being unable to marry and bringing dishonor on the family. As a result, there is no punishment for rape and no deterrence. Unmarried women, including rape victims, giving birth in government hospitals are taken to prison for three months and separated from their infants. Because they are afraid of going to prison, many girls and women who discover that they are pregnant go to foreign communities to give birth, and refuse to give birth in organized hospitals. Due to the absence of regular pregnancy monitoring and knowledge about the state of the embryo, they undergo difficult childbirths under unfit conditions, lose their lives or cause irreversible damage and severe disabilities to their babies. The lack of adoption because of religious restrictions makes these babies grow up without parental support."

It sounds like a project that will attract many volunteers

"It will enable Israeli and Jewish volunteers from all over the world to volunteer for various periods in relative comfort."

There are complaints about some volunteer programs in Africa, in which volunteers go there, found schools and projects while the locals watch from the sidelines, instead of doing the jobs that the volunteers do and earning wages.

"We really don't work that way. We rely on local residents. 80 local residents will be permanently employed in this project. We're not severing the children from their local heritage and environment. We help them help themselves. Projects will be established on the orphanage grounds that will make the orphanage financially independent. The local team and the children who grow up can finance this activity. This project will be called 'Kibbutz.' It's quite similar to the joint sleeping quarters I grew up in. They will have the knowledge and understanding that even if they were not born in an organic family, they share everything. These children will grow up with 100 siblings in this framework.

"The residents of the nearby villages really want this. Today, their children have to walk five kilometers to get to school, and a girl on her period can't leave the house. This gives them hope that that it will be different, that education will be better, and that the level of infrastructure will improve. The girls that grow up with us will be the next leaders of this country. They will work in whatever they want to do."

There is also an educational element here for children, who can volunteer there on a trip with their families.

"Definitely. I think that the Ministry of Education should allow high-school children to choose whether to travel to memorial activities in Poland or to volunteer at an orphanage for two weeks. Helping orphans who have lost everything is no less important than flying to Poland. You can learn about the Holocaust in school, and still choose a proactive mission. Not all of the children in the delegations to the ghettoes are emotionally suitable for it. You can let them do something else that is also meaningful."

What is the importance of an educational framework for the local population in the country?

"Maya Zuckerman, my COO, and I looked around and reviewed orphanages. We looked for land on which to build our project from scratch. We had a driver named Tewfik, who was so moved by the initiative and the fact that we were Israelis and were going to make this investment. Throughout our visit, we included him as a full member of the team. After all, these children were first of all his. Before we flew back, he wanted to show us something.

"We got into his car and he drove us, we didn't know where. He took us to a far-away village and stopped in the middle of nowhere. He said, 'We're a very poor family. When my father died, he left each of us 20 dunam. These are my dunam. I want to give them to you as a gift. I won't have money to build on this land. I realized how important education is for my children, and as part of their education, I give you this land. I want them to be part of something bigger than themselves.' We were left open-mouthed. We were so moved."

Your son isn't hungry enough

The people she saved along the way have remained a part of Lusky. The memories are inescapable, and her heart never gets used to the pain. "Dozens of cases have entered my heart. With all the horrors in Syria, I had the great privilege of knowing the displaced persons well. Nothing that I thought I knew about them is like what I actually found. I was surprised to discover women who ran away from home in order to find a safe place for themselves and their children carried on their backs heavy photo albums. They suffer and the albums are threadbare. They say, 'It's the past of my children. I'm not erasing it for them. I'll carry it even if I'll have two fewer blankets.'

"On one of the trucks in which we distributed aid on the way out, we removed wounded people to a safe place on the way back. There were a lot of women and children. I asked the translator to ask these mothers whether there was a country from which they would be unwilling to accept help. There was silence at first, and then one said, 'The Jews in Israel.' Another woman answered her, 'Either your son isn't hungry enough, or he's not wounded enough, if you, as a mother, can say such a thing.' They had a discussion. It was perhaps one of my most riveting and weird moments: motherhood versus religion."

Lusky gets no gratitude for her work. "In 90% of the cases, they don't know who we really are, so there's no one for them to thank," she says. When she goes home after difficult operations that achieved their goals and are considered successful, she does not feel satisfaction; she feels that she has a huge bone stuck in her throat. "There's an element of trauma. You can't see such things and remain clean. The devils speak mainly at night, when the house is quiet. That's when the images, the odors, and the voices come. Each of the volunteers has his or her own way of dealing the difficulty and the scenes. When I come home, the right thing for me is not to delve into the problems of the previous mission, but to plan the next one. It's the only cure for the soul."

So you come from paid and find relief in going to the next pain.

"I don't see it as pain. It's a great privilege for me to be on the giving side. It's a gift, not something that scars me. I have strength that I have no words to describe where it comes from. It's probably my karma, and I live it exactly, to within a millimeter. I feel lucky for this. It's a huge privilege. Our main frustration as volunteers is the fact that we live what we haven't managed to give yet. It's sorrowful and hard. Without that, my heart would be much more peaceful."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on April 22, 2019

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2019

Gal Lusky Photo: Ilya Melnikov
Gal Lusky Photo: Ilya Melnikov
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