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JewishJournal.com

November 30, 2006

Helping the Congo, person by person

http://www.jewishjournal.com/philanthropy/article/helping_the_congo_person_by_person_20061201

Gila Garaway says that the vision for her organization, Moriah Africa, came to her as she was lying in a hospital bed in Nigeria in 2001.

"I was there consulting on a water project, and I broke my back in a truck accident," the American-born Israeli from the community of Poriah near Tiberias recalled. "While lying there facing the reality that I might possibly never walk again, I saw the moment of truth of what I really wanted to do in life. I wanted to go back to the Congo and build ties between those countries and Israel."

Garaway recovered from her injury and, as soon as she could, founded Moriah Africa to do just that. In the ensuing years, she has responded to the challenges and diverse, profound needs of Africa in general, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in particular. Among the achievements of the one-woman organization have been organizing visits of young Israeli volunteers to Burundi to hold summer camps for children, linking an Israeli orthopedic surgeon with a Congolese medical training facility, and networking a variety of African business- men and women with economic partners in Israel, Europe and the United States.

In 1994, the nation of Rwanda suffered what has become known as one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century -- a genocide that cost the lives of more than 1 million of its citizens. The majority population of Hutu tribesmen attempted to destroy all trace of the minority Tutsis. A Tutsi-led army ultimately managed to take control of the country, but not before the vast majority of Tutsi had been slaughtered. More than 1 million Hutus fled to refugee camps and when they returned in 1996, a difficult truce was put in place as the two peoples attempted to rebuild their lives.

For the entire Great Lakes region of Central Africa in general, it was a time of crisis, destabilization and change: for Rwanda it was a time of resettlement and massive movements of peoples. For Burundi it was a time of ongoing rebel conflict and instability. For Zaire it was upheaval and a time of release from the many years of oppressive nondevelopment rule of Mobutu Sese Seko: the birth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a time unfortunately followed by intertribal conflict and extended war. This is where Garaway and her husband, Noah, came into the picture.

"My husband and I began working in Rwanda back in 1996 at the end of the genocide. I was working as an evaluation consultant and he as the head of a relief organization. It had nothing to do with being Israeli or part of the Israeli government, we just had the right skill sets, and the willingness to travel," she said.

The couple returned to Israel later in the year, but in 1997, they were invited to a conference to celebrate the newly established Democratic Republic of the Congo. "We were both going to go, but in the end I didn't for various personal reasons. The plane crashed in the Haut Plateau of South Kivu, DRC and my husband was killed along with a number of African leaders," Garaway explained.

"I probably wouldn't have continued working there -- there are so many problems, African issues that are complex and need to be worked out on their own -- but I stayed in touch with a number of the African widows from the crash, and on a loose basis began to go back and forth doing consultant work."

But it was the 2001 truck accident in Nigeria that got Garaway focused on the mission of helping the people of the Congo in a more personal manner.

"I call it people building people. It's all about reaching out and helping people with initiatives that will help them realize their visions. So ultimately, it's their vision, and not me saying what they need," she said.

Garaway's fledgling organization received funding by whom she calls "a few blessed individuals" and in the last five years has worked in various projects, mostly in Rwanda and Burundi. The summer camp trip this year was one of the biggest endeavors, and according to its coordinator, social worker Hadas Smith, one of the most satisfying.

"Through Gila, I learned about Burundi, and I recruited the Israeli students while she dealt with the African side of things," Smith said. "We had a group of 10 volunteers -- Jewish, Arab and three Europeans who have been living in Israel a long time. Many of them come from special ed or social work backgrounds."

She first traveled to the place she calls "one of the saddest countries in the world" three years ago as a newly graduated student. She spent six months there volunteering in an orphanage, an experience she found indescribable.

"When we came back this summer with the group, the people there already knew me, they trusted me. We could accomplish more in a week than we did in six months before.

"After spending a week at the orphanage, we went to the capital and worked with children at camps. At first it was around 600, but by the time the word got out, it grew to 2,000 by the end. We had five local students working with us -- and it didn't matter if we were Jew, Arab, black or white; we were one team," she said.

According to Garaway, the cumulative effect of the summer camp and the various other projects Moriah Africa has undertaken is having a small, positive effect on life in the area.

"We've done everything from working with absolutely illiterate, profoundly rural women, helping them to pull their lives together, to working with trainers of organizations in order to train them to be able to work with the population.

"We've also been involved with specific projects: We brought over an orthopedic surgeon who did three weeks of surgery in the Congo last summer. He invited a Congolese surgeon to come back to Israel to undergo two months of training at Poriah Hospital," she said. "We also brought two Congolese babies with heart defects over to Israel for surgery through the Save a Child's Heart organization." And the results are not only beneficial to the people of the Congo, but to Israel as well, she emphasized.

"All those little things add up, and the people here start to realize that Israel is helping them and loving them," she said. "When the 10 students went to Burundi, they painted a big white cloth sheet saying, 'Israel Loves Burundi' -- in English and Hebrew, and in their national language, Kirundi."

Garaway, who spends an average of three months a year in the Congo, said that while it's difficult running an organization by herself, she's been boosted by the support -- both moral and financial -- that she's received from others.

"It's officially only me, but it also isn't -- there's so many people whom without their volunteering it wouldn't get done," she said. "There's so many good people out there. Every time we post a notice about a baby needing heart surgery, within 24 hours it's taken care of. It's amazing how generous people can be."

For more information about Moriah Africa, visit www.moriahafrica.org

David Brinn is editorial director of ISRAEL21c, a media organization focusing on 21st century Israel.

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