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In gesture to Congo’s leader, Israeli group to bring in children for surgery

Haim Taib, head of Save A Child’s Heart Africa, surprised DRC President Felix Tshisekedi during state dinner with Herzog

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Save A Child's Heart Africa President Haim Taib (L) speaks with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi (R) as President Isaac Herzog looks on, October 27, 2021 (courtesy)
Save A Child's Heart Africa President Haim Taib (L) speaks with Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi (R) as President Isaac Herzog looks on, October 27, 2021 (courtesy)

Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi received an emotional surprise during a state dinner hosted by President Isaac Herzog on October 27.

Haim Taib, president of Save a Child’s Heart Africa and founder of the Mitrelli Group, told Tshisekedi that the Israeli organization would be bringing its first group of Congolese children to the country for life-saving heart surgery.

According to Taib, five children aged 1-12 will be flown to Israel in the coming weeks. They will stay at Save a Child’s Heart children’s home in Holon, and will be treated at Wolfson Medical Center in the city.

“I told him I was donating the funds for five children to come to Israel at our expense. He became very emotional,” Taib told The Times of Israel.

In response, Tshisikedi committed to signing a special order enabling SACH to bring the children to Israel quickly.

Israel’s leadership has strengthened relations with Congo in recent years, even as Tshisekedi’s critics accuse him of being an ideological heir of his predecessor Joseph Kabila, whom many in Congo accuse of stoking ethnic tensions and stealing money. Kabila stepped down in 2018 without seeking reelection amid major protests.

During the October visit, Herzog said the Israeli government “supports unconditionally” Tshisekedi’s leadership.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (right) meets DR Congo President Felix Tshisekedi in Jerusalem, October 28, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Save A Child’s Heart is waiting for medical documents for the five children, so that the organization can arrange their travel to Israel and their course of treatment.

The children are expected to arrive within three weeks, according to a spokeswoman.

Knowledge, experience, and soul

For Taib, working to improve living conditions and saving lives in Africa came naturally, if accidentally.

Taib’s parents moved to Israel from Tunisia, and when agricultural land opened up in the Hefer Valley region, they decided to become farmers with no prior experience or knowledge.

“There wasn’t poverty or hunger, but it was very, very hard,” Taib recalled. “My father worked three jobs, my mother two. I mostly remember my father reading the paper or sleeping.”

Taib began traveling from Portugal to Angola — then in the throes of a long civil war — as a businessman in 1991, and felt an immediate connection to the hardscrabble farms around him: “When I got to Africa, I recognized the reality I had grown up in.”

The war ended in 2002, and Taib began working with the government on national projects in education, health, housing, energy, and water in order to rehabilitate the country.

Four-year-old Sanusey from Gambia recovers after life-saving heart surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel. Sanusey is the 4,000th child to receive heart surgery from the Israeli charity Save a Child’s Heart. (Courtesy, Save a Child’s Heart)

“It took me a long time to convince the government to invest in the population and in the country and not in themselves,” he said.

With time, Taib’s work expanded to other countries, including the Ivory Coast, Senegal, and Mozambique.

When he began working with children in 2006, Taib gained a firsthand look at the appalling infant mortality rates in Angola. He began searching for ways to bring children with holes in their hearts to Israel for surgery. He eventually connected with SACH, and since then he has worked to bring hundreds of children from Africa to Israel.

Taib founded the Mitrelli Group in 2012, which designs and implements a range of sustainable projects across Africa. These include state-of-the-art hospitals, water infrastructure, schools, communications networks, and more. Around 150 Israelis live in Africa working on Mitrelli projects, Taib said.

For Taib, who became president of SACH – Africa in 2017, investment and aid work in Africa has significant benefits for Israel beyond the humanitarian goals.

“I helped significantly in a few countries in Africa so they’d vote for Israel to join the African Union as an observer state,” he said.

In July, Israel announced it would become a member with observer status in the African Union. Until 2002, Israel was an observer member of the Organization of African Unity, until it was dissolved and replaced by the African Union.

Children from Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nigeria, Kenya, Kosovo, Uganda and Zambia being treated in Holon, pose with their guardians in June 2021. (Courtesy Save a Child’s Heart)

It also does wonders for Israel’s reputation in the continent. “They very much like us, treat us with great respect in all the countries we work with,” Taib said.

He also wants Israelis to understand the agricultural, mining, and economic potential in Africa. “We try to stay under the radar. It’s more important for us to do than to show what we are doing. But in recent years I think we are missing here in Israel what is happening in Africa — that is why I decided to slowly publicize our activities in Africa.”

“The recent activities to bring a humanitarian delegation of sick children from Congo is just one example of many which Haim has committed himself to as president of Save A Child’s Heart-Africa and as a private citizen,” Simon Fisher, SACH Executive Director, told The Times of Israel.

“He has worked to strengthen ties between Israel and the Democratic Republic of Congo, and renewed cooperation around saving lives.”

Fisher and Taib have also worked to train local medical staff in African nations, and send doctors to treat children in their home countries. In November 2019, they sent a team of cardiothoracic surgeons and pediatric cardiologists to Ethiopia to perform surgeries on dozens of children in Addis Ababa. At the end of the week of surgeries, said Fisher, hundreds of Ethiopians whose lives were saved by SACH in Israel came for an emotional event in the capital, some with their families in tow.

Since its inception, SACH has saved over 6,000 children from countries and has brought over 140 medical professionals to Israel for training.

Over the past year and a half, the Mitrelli Group has built five COVID-19 field hospitals across Angola, which have now expanded to provide other kinds of care as well.

“At the end of the day,” he explained, “what we are trying to do is to bring the knowledge, the experience, our soul to Africa, to try to do the best that we can to help people progress and have a slightly better quality of life.”

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