Seven years ago, Walter Arbib was touring the Mother Theresa Orphanage in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.
There was heartbreak all around, but Arbib had already taken steps to ameliorate the condition of the orphans, all of whom, from infants in sleepers to giggling teenagers, had the HIV virus.
Along with Lelei Lelaulu, president of Counterpart International, he arranged for the delivery of thousands of dollars of AIDS pharmaceuticals to the orphanage. But one small AIDS victim he met on the tour tore at his heart. There and then, he pledged a further $8,000 to provide surgery for a five-year-old youngster at Hadassah Hospital in Israel.
It was a small amount for a man who had already demonstrated a big heart, who had already donated tens of thousands in antiretroviral medications and who had chartered a commercial airliner to bring a planeload of Falash Mora immigrants to Israel. But it was not atypical for the Libyan-born immigrant.
Over the years, Arbib has developed a reputation for generosity when it comes to helping people around the world cope with tragedy and disaster. A successful businessman with international connections, he doesn’t wait for invitations to lend a hand, mobilizing his assets to bring relief quickly where it’s needed.
And when he does so, he deflects the credit to others who, he says, made him what he is today. The people and government of Israel, along with Canada and Italy, are given credit by Arbib when he lends humanitarian aid around the world.
Earlier this summer, the government of Israel turned the tables on Arbib, honouring him for his philanthropic gestures and for allowing Israel to bathe in his reflected glow. At a ceremony at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, diplomats and politicians from Canada, Israel and Italy, along with his brother, Jack, paid tribute to Arbib.
He was recognized for bringing comfort to the afflicted, but in also building bridges for Israel with countries with which it has no relations and with boosting the image of the country in a hostile environment.
“Walter comes from the school of peacemakers who understand that very often it is business and economics that lay the foundation for diplomatic and political dialogue,” said Ze’ev Elkin, Israel’s deputy foreign minister.
Silvan Shalom, who heads a number of ministries, including regional development, said he first learned of Arbib several years ago when earthquakes and tsunamis devastated countries on the Indian Ocean, causing 300,000 casualties.
The cash-strapped Israelis could do little to help when, “out of nowhere I got a phone call from someone who told me there is a Canadian Jew that wants to give everything that is needed there, and to do it immediately.”
And do it in the name of Israel.
“I was amazed,” said Shalom.
“Israel that suffers so much from bad PR, to come out with such good PR in those days, it was significant,” he said. “I tried to find out, who was that guy.”
“I found a real Zionist, born in Tunisia who is from a Libyan family.” He learned also that in 1967, when Arbib was a young man, he was forced to flee his Libyan home in Tripoli as rioting Arabs tried to kill him in revenge for Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, Shalom said.
Arbib was saved by local police and Italian diplomats. The family fled to Italy, and since then, Arbib has been grateful for the fresh start that country afforded him.
That incident left a deep impression on Arbib, that, “No matter the nationality, everybody who needs help should get help,” Shalom continued.
Contacted during a visit to Rome, Arbib acknowledged he gives credit to Israel when he provides assistance to those in need. “I believe each one of us has to do it, to help Israel in whatever way we can,” he said.
Arbib, who lived in Israel for 19 years, said he often co-operates with local agencies to determine what is most needed. In the past, he has employed SkyLink, the air charter, transportation and logistics business he once owned to get the materials to where they are needed. On other occasions, he charters commercial aircraft.
He has, he said, reached out to countries that don’t maintain formal diplomatic relations with Israel, such as North Korea. His goal is to break down barriers, enhance Israel’s image and perhaps lay the groundwork for better relations.
“I do it in full co-ordination with the Israeli government,” he added.
He’s even worked in Arab countries, but he won’t specify which ones. “They don’t want it mentioned,” he said.
With big chunks of his life lived in various countries, he’s asked how does he see himself. “I see myself as a Libyan Jew,” he replied.
He’s rekindled his ties to that North African country, despite the traumatic exit he experienced. He’s shipped medicines there, he elicited the country’s support in freeing an Israeli prisoner and in lobbying against involvement of a Libyan ship to run the Gaza blockade.
Recently, he worked in conjunction with Israel’s Peres Centre for Peace: in June he shipped medical aid to Burma.
A few years ago, the government of Italy asked Arbib to facilitate the return of the Axum Obelisk – a 1,700-year-old archeological treasure – to Ethiopia from Rome, and following its safe return, he was given the title of “Commendatore” by the government of Italy.
Italian Ambassador Francesco Mari Talo joined his Israeli diplomatic colleagues, as well as Canada’s ambassador to Israel, Paul Hunt, in paying tribute to Arbib in Jerusalem.
Arbib is gratified at the recognition he received from the Israeli, Italian and Canadian governments – he’s received Canada’s Diamond Jubilee Medal.
“Now, with Israel, it closes the circle,” he said.
“My personal feeling is that I owe it to these countries – to Italy for what they did when we were thrown out of Libya. They helped my community and myself. Israel and Italy helped our community, which was a very vibrant community. They opened their arms to us.
“There is a day you have to pay your debt, and you want your children to follow,” he said.