TORONTO — While Jewish groups in the United States and Canada have taken the lead in urging international intervention in order to stop the genocide in the Darfur region of Sudan, one Israeli-Canadian isn’t waiting for governments to act. Toronto-based philanthropist Walter Arbib has arranged for a shipment of $400,000 worth of antibiotics and other medicines to be flown this week to Sudan and trucked to the refugee camps of Darfur.
“The situation is horrendous there,” Arbib, 65, told the Forward last week. “At least we can help a few hundred people with this shipment. You have two possibilities in this life: One is to face reality, the other is to avert your eyes.”
Darfur is just the latest in a series of humanitarian disasters in which Arbib, CEO of SkyLink Aviation, has spearheaded private relief missions. He uses the expertise his firm has acquired in supplying transport for more than 20 United Nations peacekeeping deployments around the globe and for American and Italian troop movements to post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.
Arbib’s company partners with two American-based nonprofits, Counterpart International and Medicine for Humanity, to perform these relief missions. Sometimes SkyLink provides the planes, other times the logistics or (as in Darfur) the money needed for low-cost drugs.
Arbib declined to reveal how much he donated for the Darfur initiative, but this is not likely to be the last time he’s involved in it. According to Arbib, having 200 of his employees in Sudan on a U.N. mission “means we have firsthand information, which pushes us to take some action.” He has underwritten a previous shipment to Darfur and plans to fund another “at a later stage.”
The multilingual Arbib was born in Tunisia, as his parents had gone there to escape the Nazis during World War II. He grew up in Libya, but fled Tripoli at age 26 during the Six Day War, when anti-Jewish rioters set his home aflame.
Arriving in Italy, he worked as part of a team helping other Libyan Jews find their way into refugee camps and then to Israel. From Italy, Arbib himself immigrated, penniless, to Israel, where he worked for a travel agency. He later organized the first regular tours from Israel to Egypt following the signing of the Camp David Accords in 1979.
As Arbib saw his travel business flourish in Israel, he organized tours and transportation for the 6,000 U.S. 6th Fleet troops that would dock in Israel. He then realized that there was a potentially lucrative market in providing troop transport for the military. Arbib moved to Canada in 1988 so that he could fully exploit the opportunity. “Doing this work from Israel would have been problematic,” he said, “because its relations were tense with many countries.”
One year after Arbib came to Canada and established SkyLink with his partner, a Punjab-born Sikh named Surjit Babra, the company won its first U.N. contract: to provide transport for the rotation of peacekeepers in Namibia. At one time, SkyLink derived 80% of its revenues from U.N. relief and troop-deployment missions.
However, a lengthy feud with the world body in the 1990s over allegations of bidding irregularities and safety violations resulted in SkyLink being blacklisted from U.N. contracts. Following an arbitrator’s ruling in its favor, SkyLink was reinstated as a legitimate vendor, but it has diversified its clientele and now earns only 20% of its revenues from U.N. contracts.
One of its newer markets is Iraq, where the Pentagon hired SkyLink’s American affiliate to rehabilitate and run the airports in Baghdad, Basra, Arbil and Mosul. (The American affiliate had bought a table at a Bush fund-raising dinner, but Arbib denied that the donation was connected to the Iraq contracts.) In a humanitarian mission, SkyLink returned the remains of hundreds of Saddam’s Kurdish victims from southern Iraq to the Kurdish-controlled north.
Arbib’s list of humanitarian efforts is long. Following the October 2005 earthquake in Pakistan and the December 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Sri Lanka, he helped deliver shipments of drugs to those devastated countries. In early 2005, he donated medical supplies –— with Israel’s approval –— for Palestinian children through the Palestinian Red Crescent Society; Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he was proud to receive the gift from his “Jewish cousins.” Next month, he will help ship anti-AIDS drugs to Ethiopia.
The humanitarian role that “touched us the most,” he said, was in Rwanda following the 1994 genocide: “We opened an orphanage for 900 children with the help of the wives of Canadian soldiers.”
While Arbib is reticent to publicize his Israeli background, his ties to the Jewish state remain strong. During the 1999 Israeli election, he ran charter flights for 1,600 Israeli expatriates to fly home, vote and return as early as the next day.
Last November, he and his Canadian-born wife, Edie, joined Israel’s then-foreign minister, Sylvan Shalom, and his wife on their visit to Tunis, the birthplace of both men. Arbib also has donated generously to a museum in Israel that commemorates Libyan Jewry.
Will he visit Libya one day? “I have been invited, and I would go there,” he said, “but only if there is a special reason. Libya was a beautiful country, but I’m not nostalgic.”