Through the Diplomatic Spouses Club (I know -- fancy) I got the opportunity to go to a conference on what I was led to believe was international aid and disaster relief -- particularly what was done in Haiti and what we can learn from it for the future. Given that I've been working with the refugee kids and my interest in the current refugee crisis, I thought it would be insightful and I was looking forward to learning about plans for inevitable future crises and what we can do to help.
Not so. The conference started an hour later than expected, after I had been sitting at the embassy for an hour waiting to go to said conference. But no matter. I went with an acquaintance from The Club (that's what we call it here -- The Club -- kidding; it's not -- it just sounded more exciting) so we chatted and waited it out.
The moderator of the conference was someone whose name I can't find on the program, but he was something else. He spent almost his entire time talking about how Israel has "Never Again" programmed in its DNA -- that they are bred to fight and to win. He showed pictures of children in concentration camps in 1944 and then pictures of Israeli fighter planes flying over Auschwitz in 2003, telling us that Israel is the only country with the "chutzpah" to cross enemy lines to disable nuclear weapons, braver and quicker than the US (this came up a lot) and the UK and how they will, more or less, rule the world one of these days. It was a giant line of propaganda, honestly not really aimed to the right audience as I think we were the only Americans in the room -- except the keynote speaker, Sean Penn (cliffhanger). The Haitian Prime Minister was supposed to be there but canceled at the last minute.
He showed a map of Israel/Palestine in the early '90s with the Palestinian territories shown in green (the majority of the area) and the Israeli territories showing in white (a few small dots), then showed the same map in the mid 90s (far more white) and now (almost all white) and how they have conquered more territory than anyone in the last generation. I, who have a few opinions on the incredibly complex issue of the occupation of Palestinian territory (shocking, I know) was cringing in my seat and forcing myself to keep my mouth shut, for safety and sanity. But really I was thinking, "you really shouldn't be bragging about that." But alas. How this had anything to do with international aid, I have no idea.
At the end, after much showing of Israeli muscle, he said that Israel needs to do more to help others. Even though the Bible says that they should be concentrating on building their own people and triumphing over all, somewhere in there it also says they should help others, so, yeah, more of that. The end.
It was an odd beginning to an odd conference. The next speaker was the Chief Medical Officer of the IDF and his speech was pretty factual and informative -- graphs on how long it took them to mobilize for the Haitian earthquake, transportation times, how many staff in which categories were required -- on point. Didn't really discuss how they would do any better next time, what worked and what didn't, etc., but he ran out of time so maybe that would have come later. Dressed in a suit and looking very official.
The next person was from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, clearly a politician, engaging, Israel is great, we want to help others, we went to Haiti. There to shoot the political shiz, dressed in a button down without a tie or jacket.
The last person of this particular panel was the head of IsraAID's delegation to Haiti, and he was a trip. Dressed in Tevas and cargo pants, an orange t-shirt and a massive, excellent Jewish fro. It was just so -- legit. I think one thing I've noticed about Israel is, you get what you get. There isn't a lot of pretense. I just found these three men to be prime examples of that. It's something I actually like about Israel -- people are straight up genuine. You might not like it -- and chances are excellent that you won't -- but they aren't going to try to pretend to be something they are not.
Here he is looking a bit more dapper than he was yesterday. Hair a bit more under control, collared shirt.
So he goes through some slides showing pictures of different places they have been and things they have done. It, again, doesn't really discuss just what technically they have done or what they will do in the future, just a basic (albeit deserved, though possibly not in that forum) pat on the back to IsraAID. And they have done a lot, and he personally has done a lot, so kudos to him. Until the end. In his last couple of minutes he says that, when they left Haiti, there were accusations of aid workers trafficking children and organs, and that IsraAID was accused of being caught up in it. He flips to his last slide that says, in GIANT letters, "WE. DID. NOT." And says how he was planning to give this message to the Haitian Prime Minister when he was here, because this dark cloud has followed them for the last four years and he wanted to say it to his face. And apparently put it on a big sign. It was -- awkward. Again, a message that has worth in being delivered, possibly not in that forum, possibly let's not try to publicly embarrass a high official from another country?
Then we had a coffee break. Now Sean Penn has been sitting about five rows in front of me the whole time. I have been looking at the back of his head, more or less, for the last hour and a half. He's a celebrity. I get it. But, poor man. When I walked back in from the coffee break there was an older couple (I would swear they were American except they weren't -- he had been shouting random comments throughout the conference up to this point) and the woman is standing about a foot and a half behind Sean, and the man goes in front of his table and takes a picture. It was super obvious, super awkward, and Sean is supposed to act like he doesn't know exactly what they are doing. I felt for him and he must have to deal with it all the time. For heaven's sake, just go up and ask if you can take a picture with him. Don't be weird about it.
The next speaker is a woman who talks about gender based violence in recovering disaster areas and what they have done, and are continuing to do, in Haiti to help the problem. They have different types of therapies going on, safe houses, schools, etc. and the help continues. They are giving these women and children a chance at a real life. It was inspiring, and what I had been waiting for all along.
So the last speaker is Sean. They introduce him -- the longest introduction I've ever heard even though he's been referenced about 50 times up to this point, but he's a celebrity and people are super excited -- and they ask that, if people want to take pictures, they do it in the first minute or two of the speech so he can concentrate. We take a few pictures when he first stands up, and he does give a really nice, engaging speech about why he went to Haiti, how he mobilized, the steps they took to figure out what was needed and fulfill those needs, etc., and people just keep taking pictures. Not even trying to be discreet. Like standing up from the middle of a row and walking in front of everyone, then standing in the aisle and taking pictures, like holding up a giant iPad in the middle of the room and taking 5 minutes worth of video and pictures, blocking everyone's view behind -- what is wrong with us, people? The man acts for a living. He's good at it. I know. But he's not here for that. He has actually done some great humanitarian work. And was actually talking about the topic, which hardly anyone else did, but somehow that was all covered up in a barrage of people all over the place taking pictures. Again, I felt for him but I'm sure he's used to it.
In case you were wondering, he felt the need to help in Haiti because right before the earthquake his son had been in a serious skateboarding accident and he felt the torture of seeing his son suffer until he got medical help and pain medication. When the earthquake hit he could only think of how he felt as a parent and how he would do anything to help other parents be able to help their children. So he mobilized. It's a pretty dramatic response to the situation but one he was connected enough to mobilize and one I can understand, parent to parent. They did some amazing things and he argued that Haiti should continue to be helped because the Haitians really want to help themselves. He said with every problem they solved as a team, the Haitians would come in and identify, then fix, the next problem. They aren't looking for someone to solve all of their problems for them; they just need help to help themselves.
Here is a weak Sean Penn photo (didn't use the flash so as not to blind him):
After Sean someone from an Australian foundation spoke saying that they are pledging more money to IsraAID because of their good work, but was sure to add that they get money from Christians who know that the Bible says that this land belongs to the Jews (I had to mentally put my fingers in my ears at this point and sing "la la la la"). I'm not sure how that translates to aid, per se, but it went along with the rest of the conference. He also said to Sean that he was sure he had hundreds of emails and messages saying not to come to Israel, but he came anyway, and he was proud of him for that. It was an odd end to an odd conference.
All in all, an interesting day. I felt a bit duped as the conference was more a big pat on the back for IsraAID (again, deserved, but possibly not in this forum) and the Israeli armed forces than a real study in what was done in Haiti and what we can learn from it, but the on-point speakers were good, and, if nothing else, it was an interesting study in the human condition.