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Jewish Relief Efforts for Rwanda: ‘pied Piper’ of a Rwandan Refugee Camp Wears a Yarmulke

In the middle of the Kibumba refugee camp here, Dr. Rick Hodes, a slim American doctor wearing a yarmulke and a light-blue windbreaker, can be seen darting in and out of the hospital tents.

The rainy season has begun, adding to the misery of the 850,000 refugees who have fled the civil war in their native Rwanda, arriving in this border town in eastern Zaire.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee has established a humanitarian presence here, opening a hospital in the Kibumba refugee camp. It is one of five camps in the area that is home to 160,000 refugees, most of them children.

The hospital, formed in partnership with the International Rescue Committee, is a complex of tents, erected on a cleared dirt site. It currently has 110 beds and is expanding.

There are 50,000 refugees in the area of the camp for which the JDC’s medical team is responsible. Hodes, 41, heads the ongoing medical program, which is supported by a coalition of 35 American Jewish organizations.

During the height of the Rwandan crisis this past summer, the JDC received close to $1 million in special funds for the refugees and is still getting thousands of dollars a week. Besides Hodes’ medical team, the American Jewish groups and Israel are sponsoring relief efforts in Bukavu, Zaire, led by Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan.

A low stone wall separates the hospital from the rest of the Kibumba refugee camp, creating an oasis of calm, order and hope amid a sea of chaos, desperation and disease.

As Hodes wanders through the camp, he greets the refugees in their native language, and they smile. Groups of children follow him as he weaves through the huts on his rounds.

He seems very much the Pied Piper of Kibumba — with a yarmulke.

NO STRANGER TO DIFFICULT CONDITIONS

It is not always easy to be a religious Jew in Goma, but Hodes seems to take it in stride. There is no way to get kosher food, so here he is a vegetarian.

“For Sukkot I had 26,000 sukkahs,” he said, laughingly referring to the camp’s huts. “But on Yom Kippur I worked. I had to work, we had so many people. But I fasted, of course.”

Hodes, originally a New Yorker, is no stranger to difficult working conditions. He was in charge of the JDC’s medical program for Ethiopian Jews in Addis Ababa for the past five years.

He recalled that “when I got here in late July, there was still a lot of cholera and we had no proper site. We went out in the field like combat medics. Ironically, the strongest were able to get to the hospital down the road, and the sickest were dying in their tents.

“There used to be hundreds of bodies on the road every day. Now people are getting stronger, their health is getting better. The statistics in our area are better than in the other camps, lower than 1.6 deaths per 10,000,” Hodes said.

With many of the refugees fearing for their lives if they return home to Rwanda, relief efforts are now shifting from emergency treatment to longer-term medical care.

Hodes and his team treat about 500 people per day, now mainly for dehydration, shigella, bloody diarrhea, malaria and meningitis.

Here in Goma, a hospital is not a sterile, quiet, steel and concrete building with lots of medicines and equipment. Rather, it is a refuge, with clean water, soap and people who care.

“I delivered this baby today,” Hodes said, pointing to a woman wrapped in a blanket hugging a newborn to her breast. “The mother just wandered in this morning. The word got out that if they deliver here they get a free blanket.”

Leaving the refugee camps to make the three-hour drive from Goma to the Rwandan capital of Kigali, one crosses stunningly beautiful countryside that marks a stark contrasts with the human misery left behind.

The modern road, along which many of the refugees fled on foot to Goma, weaves through the mountains. Endless streams of people walk along the road. Children hurry along cattle and goats. When it begins to rain, people cover their heads with giant banana tree leaves.

There are numerous desperate humanitarian needs in Rwanda, but the most tragic are those of the estimated 100,000 children who are now alone here.

CHILDREN SAW FAMILIES BRUTALLY KILLED

Their parents have either been slaughtered or were lost in the chaos. Often, these children saw their entire families being backed to death with machetes. The ones who survived managed to hide, or were left for dead.

The lucky ones live in makeshift orphanages hastily set up by local volunteers. Here babies and children with blank eyes sit in the dirt or play in muddy streams of water. Tiny boys and girls with stomachs swollen from malnutrition wait patiently for food and water.

The local volunteers, aided by international organizations, try to care for the children as best they can, but there is often barely any food and no running water within miles.

JDC has just started providing assistance to improve the living conditions of orphans in the Kibungo region of Rwanda.

“One of Rwanda’s most serious problems is the children,” said Manlio Dell’Ariccia, a senior JDC staff member who recently visited Rwanda. “According to Jewish tradition, children should always be the priority, and I think it is fitting that we use the money given to us for Rwanda to improve the children’s lives.”

While Kigali today appears calm, there is evidence everywhere of the massacres that took place in April when up to 1 million Tutsi were slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors.

Bullet holes riddle homes, and it seems as if every door in the city is splintered, their locks hacked off with machetes.

Jewish relief workers here bring a unique perspective to their work, and many are comparing the genocide here to the Holocaust.

Stefanie Sobel, 28, an American who grew up in Israel, works in Kigali with the International Rescue Committee. “Because I’m Jewish, I think my reaction is stronger, or maybe more personal, than some of the other people’s here,” she said.

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