“People ask for permission to save other people’s lives but nobody asks for permission to kill.” Interview with Gal Lusky, founder and CEO of Israeli Flying Aid

14 May 2009
“People ask for permission to save other people's lives but nobody asks for permission to kill.” Interview with Gal Lusky, founder and CEO of Israeli Flying Aid

Humanitarian work, volunteers, fund, Israel, NGO, kibbuz, Israeli Flying Aid, permission to save lives, Levanon

If you have a chance to meet Gal you will surely be impressed by this slim, young woman who has dedicated her life to saving human lives. She is outspoken and honest, not to mention committed to saving lives and helping others –– and this is the reason why she created a humanitarian NGO not like others: Israeli Flying Aid. She is a dedicated and convinced humanitarian, who grew up in a kibbutz, and continues to live in a kibbutz when she is not on a humanitarian mission around the world. During the last war in Israel, she even took her son of 11 with her on mission –– it’s better for him to be with his mother than being in a shelter. We had the chance to meet her in Geneva and now we leave the floor to Gal …

Q: How did you get the idea of setting up the Israeli Flying Aid?

I am an Israeli, and it goes without saying that we have all suffered losses. If we are looking for reasons to hate, we can find many ––wars, the Holocaust or something else. I almost lost my brother in the Lebanon war in 1992. He was very severely wounded. At that time I was working as a flight attendant.

Coming to visit him in hospital made me think and negotiate with God. Maybe I was wrong making money, doing a degree in university. Maybe that is not the thing to do. So I said to myself: with all the money I now have, can I buy him out of that situation? It was not something I could avoid. It was like taking an oath: if he comes out of this, I will change my agenda and see what I can do for people throughout the world who did not choose to be wounded and did not have the support of medical systems like we do in Israel. We have an amazing hospital service: the army was taking care of my brother. I knew that somewhere in the world there are people who are not so fortunate.

After a year, my brother came out of hospital. It was August 1993. When the next war began I went on my first mission as a private person, not as an organization. I then continued going on these missions. By the time of the Tsunami, I decided that there was so much cynicism around this aspect of humanitarian work, and that most of the people who are carrying it out –– although they are NGOs –– work for somebody who has their own agenda. The victims are never at the centre. These NGOs are not tolerant enough and modest enough, and they do not even bother to learn about the precise needs of the disaster victims, about people’s needs, about their culture or religion. Each one of them is coming to a disaster area to provide what they know how to give. So, for instance, after the Tsunami pasta came from Italy to Sri Lanka, but the people did not even know how to cook it. After the earthquake in Kashmir unsuitable coats came and the mullahs decided to burn them.

I understood that if I wanted to work according to my conscience and for the victims, I needed to set up my own organization, although I was afraid to do so and did not really enjoy paper work too much. For many years I tried to delay my mission by finding an organization that was suitable for me to be a volunteer, but I did not find one.

I learned something else –– people ask for permission to save lives. This was the most terrible thing for me, because nobody asked for permission to kill. So why do I have to ask for permission to save people’s lives? As an Israeli, I was unable to go to half of the countries in the world, because we do not have diplomatic relations with them. Yet, I was rather happy with what my country and government was doing for those with whom we did have relations. (We once sent a delegation to Turkey.) But, as you might know, most countries do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. So I decided to focus on these countries and sent civil assistance to them –– Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan, even Lebanon during the last war. Another thing that we do is to work in countries where the local regime is blocking humanitarian assistance –– as in Myanmar.

We work mostly below the radar. This is not only because we are Israelis. We do not want to embarrass those who accept our help. They might risk their own lives if it became known that we had come from Israel to help them.

We also need to protect our own lives, because after all we are all Israeli citizens carrying that passport.

After having seen the disasters we feel very lucky to be Israelis having our own strong country supporting our children back at home.

Q: Do you work with other NGOs?

No, we work alone. Most of the time, we are the first ones to arrive. We get in first because we try to be there early. Our mission is to save lives. In disasters you have three phases: the first one is life saving aid lasting two or three weeks; then it’s relief; and after relief comes rehabilitation. We concentrate on the first phase.

Q: So what exactly do you do? Do you fly in with aircraft?

We do not fly in, since we work undercover! We mostly fly in on regular civil flights. We do not take supplies with us –– for two reasons. The first reason is so as not to be conspicuous, and second reason is so as not to be controlled by the local government and the regimes. When you know that all ports, airports, etc., are controlled by the government, the authorities may then do whatever they want with the supplies. Everybody knows it, although it’s not politically correct to say so. We do not go along with that approach.

Nothing is missing in the local economy. Nothing! There is not one country where I could not buy what I needed to help the victims. The only thing that is missing is the capability of the victims to pay for aid and to transport it to the location where it is needed. We come with donation money and our intention is to empower the local society to buy everything it needs. Although I can buy, for instance, 100 tons of materials in one place, I will always divide the purchase among several sources in order to help the locals.

Q: You say that you are all volunteers. In that respect, you are also different from other humanitarian organizations.

Yes. In the Red Cross, in the United Nations, etc., people work on a regular salaried basis. Most big NGOs have staff working on their payroll, and that is the regular way of working. We can report in Sri Lanka, for instance, where people were injured and dying, that some field clinics opened at 9 a.m. and closed at 6 p.m., just as their staff worked in their home countries.

Our people are working 24/7, and do not want to sleep. I have told them that they must have at least four hours of sleep each night.

We do not need anything. We can survive in a foreign area for about a month without the help of anybody. We have our own electricity; we have our own network; we have our own intelligence and maps before we arrive.

We were in Kashmir after the earthquake –– both on the Indian and on the Pakistani side. We were in Indonesia with Israeli passports although we worked under cover of a European organization, with a different logo of course so as not to embarrass the locals.

Q: How do you find volunteers for your organization?

At the moment, I have as many as I can handle. The problem is donations for the missions. Most donors want credit for their donation. But because our working method is so special and since we are working under the radar, I cannot give them credit. It’s a real difficulty.

We tend to keep a low profile, and this makes it really difficult to find funding for the work we do.

Q: So how do you find money?

The American-Jewish committees support us, and some other donors. To raise money, I have to travel abroad. Some donors tell me that I might get killed, and I ask them why is this bothering you? I’m an adult and I know what the risks are. Every single person that is working for us knows what he/she needs to do. It is our choice.

My dream is that Muslim money will arrive on the table to support this organization. Although I have difficulties because most Muslims will not talk to me, we do not mind working under any flag or any logo in order to save other people’s lives.

In the Middle East, people are too emotional. I cannot solve their problems, but what I can do is to create a real operational dialogue. Millions of dollars go to create dialogue among the Israelis and the Palestinians, but what happens is that when the first shot is fired they stop speaking to each other. Why waste all that money? We could train them and ensure that, once they see what real disaster is, they will learn to speak even when they shoot at each other. I know that each volunteer –– he/she coming from Jordan or Palestine –– will learn that saving lives is saintly. It’s not jihad. If somebody commits suicide in Judaism he/she is not allowed to be buried in the cemetery, because only God gives and only God takes. We are obliged in Judaism to save lives, even if they are not ours. I hope so much that some Muslims will understand that this joint venture of saving lives, far away from the discussions of the Middle East, in the other side of the world, can be considered as consensus. We have things to do! I really hope that somebody will listen.

In Myanmar, we were the first ones to arrive. We supplied the monks with food because the regime forbade humanitarians to help them.

We have huge problems with funding … especially now, as everywhere money is so tight.

Most NGOs who enter a country just do one thing ––medical assistance or food assistance or post-trauma assistance. Sometimes, in order to obtain these three services, people have to run from one place to the other –– in a situation where sometimes there are no roads, no communications.

We do everything in one location. We are able to provide 10,000 hot meals every day (the photos are on the Internet). If I say it, there really are hot meals every day cooked by widows or single women.

We have field clinics where we can treat 500 people every day. We have all kinds of doctors, surgeons and specialists –– burns, gynecologists, post-trauma experts, orthopedics, etc.

Most NGOs conducting humanitarian work support the government of a country because they are the ones who authorize access. Guess what? When you do post-disaster assessment, you discover that the ones who did not receive any supplies were the political opposition, because the government used the disaster as a Machiavellic weapon. They just block the roads and nobody can go there.

Children are not to blame for their parent’s political points of view. Why should they die because a governor, or a local regime, says so? It’s really awful!

Since your readers are mainly diplomats, there is something else I would like to draw your attention to …

Some people lose their right to be refuges –– some people hit by a disaster choose to live on the ruins of their houses. The UN does not provide any assistance for them, because, to benefit from the title of refugee, they have to live in tents! In Georgia, people did not get any assistance because they were not properly identified. We tried to help them. We sent people around the city to check and locate them. We supported them with food, with access to a hospital, etc.

For further information, see: www.ifaid.com