Witnessing affliction in Congo, Oaklander offers aid

During a recent visit to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Oakland resident Marc Manashil and his friend Dr. Omer Pasi came across a young boy. In a country full of sickly children, this child looked worse than most.

Pasi could tell that he was malnourished and probably was infected with AIDS and malaria. The child lived within walking distance of a clinic, but being seen there would require payment and his family couldn't afford it.

Manashil and Pasi took him to the clinic.

"They looked at us in amazement," said Manashil, as if to suggest that treating the boy was a lost cause. "I wasn't sure what the long-range impact was going to be, but not acting wasn't an option."

The clinic visit cost the men about 50 cents and medication was another dollar. From what Manashil has heard, the child's condition had improved enough so that he could attend school again.

Drawing upon his Jewish background, Manashil said, "When we're confronted with an injustice, we are required to act. It's not a choice, but a requirement."

Manashil is the executive director of the 1-1/2-year-old Clarence Foundation, an Albany-based nonprofit that funds grassroots projects in developing countries. He founded the group — whose Web site is www.theclarencefoundation.org — with Angela Mason.

A social worker by profession, Manashil has a long-standing interest in international work, which began when he worked with victims of human rights abuses.

Pasi is a member of the advisory board of the foundation and the co-founder of the Help Diocese of Kitwit in his native Zaire, the former name of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Pasi was telling Manashil about the turmoil the country has experienced recently, and "I just became very moved by that," he said. "I wanted to do something to help the Congolese people."

It would be difficult to find a country on the State Department's list that is deemed less safe than Congo. At first, Manashil began to wonder whether his voyage away from his wife and 2-year-old daughter was such a good idea.

But while there, he didn't feel unsafe. In one incident, when he was sure a policeman was coming to arrest him and solicit a bribe, the policeman instead asked him for money, saying his family was starving.

The two men were there in January and left Congo just a few days before President Laurent Kabila was assassinated by one of his own soldiers.

"There was an eerie kind of calm before," Manashil said. "It was good we got back because they shut down the airports."

What Manashil found was rampant unemployment, astronomical inflation and a lack of the most basic necessities, including fuel and transportation. If people were lucky enough to have jobs, they most likely couldn't get to them.

While he had seen many of the same conditions in other developing countries, the economic crisis in Congo had made everything even worse, he said. "Civil servants aren't getting paid, no one is getting paid."

And unlike in India, which despite rampant poverty, maintains its infrastructure, including the train system and its buildings, in Congo that is not the case, he added.

In one example of how badly off the country is (which would be funny were it not so serious), Manashil said he and Pasi were told to go to the police station after he snapped a photograph where he wasn't supposed to. The police began writing up a report "for their own protection," but then ran out of paper. They sent Manashil and Pasi to go buy more paper, so they could finish up the report.

While in Kinshasa, the country's capital, he dropped in on the Lubavitch-run synagogue, where Rabbi Shlomo Bentolila and his wife, Myriam, also live.

Manashil cited specific projects that he would like the Clarence Foundation to support, primarily those that "help people help themselves."

One is on the outskirts of Kinshasa, where the land is fertile and men and women are able to grow their own food. But they spend all day filling up two watering cans at the river, and walking back and forth.

"What if they had a small irrigation system?" he asked. "A very small investment could help them grow and produce more food."

Manashil said that as a new father, his visit to Congo made him especially grateful that his daughter did not live under such conditions. In addition to the hunger and disease, he saw barefoot children wearing garbage bags.

"Jews can relate in a certain historical sense," he said. "Jews need to stand with others who are suffering. Through our own experience, there's a certain sense of empathy that would lead us to help other people."

Manashil, a student of Jewish meditation and frequenter of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley, believes that Jews should be doing more to help non-Jews.

"Tzedakah is not only helping Jews, but helping all the world's people. The notion of justice applies to everyone."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."