Walter Arbib was driving his car in Tripoli when he heard the news. It was June 5, 1967, and a radio report announced that Israel had attacked Egypt. “People were already shouting in the streets,” recalls Arbib, who was then 26 years old and living in the Libyan capital. “The Egyptians were saying that they had advanced deep in Israel. The mob was overexcited. There were people running around breaking windows.” A defining moment of Arbib's life was at hand.
Seeking to pre-empt an expected attack from Jordan, Egypt and Syria, Israel had dealt the opening blow in what became known as the Six Day War. That was bad news for Libya's Jewish population, which had an uneasy relationship with the Arab majority. Many Libyan Jews had emigrated to Israel, Italy and elsewhere during the preceding two decades as regional tensions mounted. Those who stayed endured discriminatory restrictions on travel, property ownership and other matters. By 1967, around 6,000 remained. There had been pogroms, and more violence was about to erupt.
Upon hearing the radio news, Arbib returned to his family's house, a two-storey brick building on a main street. A local mob of about 40 people saw him enter and tried to break through its heavy wood door. The mob torched a coffee shop on the building's main floor and the house became unbearably hot. “I didn't believe I would get out safely,” recalls Arbib. Eventually, he, his mother and the coffee shop's owner escaped to a neighbouring building, where they hid for two nights.
Arbib thought the whole thing would blow over. But outside, tempers reached a boiling point. It soon became clear that early reports of Egyptian success were inaccurate; Israel would go on to decimate Arab militaries and seize the Gaza Strip and West Bank, which remain flashpoints of the Arab-Israeli conflict to this day. By some accounts, the Jewish presence in Libya dated back 2,300 years. The Six Day War effectively ended it. “Once we saw a lot of shops burned in town, it was clear there was no [going] back,” Arbib says. Leaving everything behind, the prosperous family made two attempts to fly to Italy, the second of which was successful. The Arbibs' plight was similar to untold millions who, caught up in circumstances beyond their control, find themselves refugees every year.
Four decades later, Arbib has returned to a position of privilege. He's the wealthy co-owner of SkyLink Group, a privately held travel-and-aviation conglomerate based in Toronto. (His close friend Surjit Babra, a Sikh originally from Punjab, India, runs the travel operations.) Arbib oversees SkyLink Aviation Inc., a logistics company that provides planes and helicopters to governments, businesses and international aid organizations. It's famous for flying into conflict zones and humanitarian disasters. Nevertheless, Arbib hasn't forgotten those tense days in 1967 in Libya, nor the people who helped him escape and rebuild his life. “You cannot say, 'I don't care,' you know?” he says. “It doesn't work like that.”
Such experiences influenced what would become his unique brand of philanthropy: small, private relief missions that deliver immediate impact — random acts of kindness, if you like. “I don't feel myself to be a philanthropist,” Arbib says. “A philanthropist gives a huge amount of money. We're trying to do what we can, but of course we are a very small potato in the market.”
The nature of SkyLink's business often precludes plodding, protracted reasoning. When customers call during emergencies, quick decisions must be made. Arbib acts on the spot, almost by instinct. He seems ideally suited for such tasks: one friend describes him as having an almost empathic ability to assess situations quickly: “Put him in a town and he'll know what the mood is, both politically and in business.” His philanthropy reflects that, too. Arbib spends little time deliberating over which causes matter the most, or how to get the best bang for his buck. Rather, he heeds whatever problems appear before him, guided largely by emotional impulses. “We work a lot out of instinct,” Arbib says. “If we feel, we jump.”
SkyLink's in-country employees act as Arbib's eyes and ears. Working as they do in some of the world's most chaotic regions, they witness plenty of suffering. When they see opportunities for the company to intervene, they're encouraged to inform management. Jan Ottens, SkyLink Aviation's vice-president and general manager, says SkyLink's philanthropic efforts aren't without self-interest, because they do help to build local relationships. But Arbib's personal philosophy — that a company cannot turn a blind eye to realities in the countries where it operates — percolates through SkyLink's corporate culture. “Management and staff cannot do this without the nod and full support of the two owners,” Ottens says.
SkyLink's first humanitarian initiative happened in 1994, when it shipped hundreds of planeloads of personnel and equipment for the Canadian Armed Forces from Trenton, Ont., to Kigali, Rwanda. Armed with machetes, guns and garden implements, extremist Hutus butchered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in what genocide scholar Samantha Power called “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the 20th century.” SkyLink's in-country project manager learned of two aid workers struggling to care for 900 abandoned children in a village. “We got a request from our guys to do something,” recalls Ottens. In partnership with a group of Canadian soldiers' wives, SkyLink set up a temporary orphanage and airlifted food, clothing and medical supplies free of charge, along with a water-purification truck. Months later, as the killing subsided, most of the absent parents returned and reclaimed their children.
SkyLink's efforts became slightly more structured after Arbib met Lelei LeLaulu at the United Nations in New York. LeLaulu is president of Counterpart International, a non-governmental organization based in Washington. Counterpart's relationships with pharmaceutical companies and the U.S. government allowed it to purchase medicine cheaply. “He was looking for quick impact and low bureaucracy,” LeLaulu recalls. SkyLink, meanwhile, offered instant reach and cash donations to buy more medicine. “We needed to get to places where Walter was already operating,” he adds. The two became fast friends.
Before long, SkyLink and Counterpart began collaborating on relief missions. (Medicine for Humanity, another NGO, sometimes also participates.) Says LeLaulu: “It's just a matter of me calling up Uncle Walter and saying, 'We need a shipment to Darfur.' He says: 'When? How big?' And then we call back and say, 'Pick it up in Frankfurt. Here are the waybill numbers.'” Once the medicine reaches the destination country, Counterpart has employees or affiliates on the ground ready to distribute it.
This arrangement appeals to Arbib partly because he detests red tape. “He's seen what unnecessary bureaucracy can do to thwart the goodwill of others,” says LeLaulu. “He's seen the piles and palettes and boxes and containers on the docks and airports during complex emergencies which do not get moved, either because governments are slow to approve the shipments, or because governments are slow to disburse assistance from abroad.” Following an initial joint mission in Iraq, Counterpart and SkyLink worked together in Sudan, Georgia, Mauritania, India, Afghanistan and Indonesia. When a tsunami devastated coastal areas of south Asia in December 2004, Counterpart and SkyLink flew large volumes of pharmaceuticals into Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Male, Maldives. They did the same after an earthquake ravaged Pakistan in October 2005.
Arbib's philanthropy inevitably embroils him in regional politics. A staunch defender of Israel, he sometimes acts as a kind of unofficial ambassador for the country. On one recent relief mission, for example, large capital letters on boxes of medicine indicated they were a donation from the Israeli government. (SkyLink and Counterpart were mentioned in smaller letters.) But Israel wasn't involved in the shipment. “For Jews, it is always important that Israel is seen in a good light,” Arbib explains.
But Arbib often operates outside that context. In 2005, SkyLink and Counterpart shipped supplies to Palestinian children in Jericho. “I was a little bit criticized,” Arbib says. “The criticism was, 'How could a Jew who had to flee an Arab country make a decision like that?' They didn't understand my idea…children are not guilty of anything.”
Arbib's missions extend to the unusual. There is, for example, the tale of the Ethiopian obelisk. Dating from the fourth century AD, this granite stela stands nearly 25 meters tall and weighs 160 tonnes. It was stolen in 1937 during Mussolini's occupation of the country, shipped by boat to Italy and erected in a piazza near the Coliseum in Rome. After the obelisk was damaged in a lightning storm in 2002, the Italian government finally bent to Ethiopian and international pressure and agreed to return it to its original site in the city of Aksum.
The obelisk was separated into three sections and was to be flown to Ethiopia by a Ukrainian company that manufactures and flies the Antonov An-124, a huge air freighter. But things got complicated because that company lost a civil legal dispute with Cyprus-based TMR Energy Ltd. When the Ukrainians refused to pay the court judgment, the plaintiff began seizing aircraft in North America and Europe. Arbib intervened. He travelled to London to negotiate a truce with lawyers from TMR. “Everybody was looking at the problem as one you could not solve,” says Arbib. But he eventually prevailed, and the Cypriot firm agreed to allow the obelisk flights to land in Italy. SkyLink personnel assisted in the transfer.
Arbib says he was partly motivated by a desire to thank Italy for accepting Libyan Jews as refugees. But even here, his thoughts turn to his old house in Tripoli. “I'm getting photos from time to time. People are living there,” he says quietly. He also recalls the notorious thefts from Holocaust victims during the Second World War. “What captured my imagination is a symbol of returning stolen property,” he says. The obelisk's re-erection is scheduled to finish by the end of the year.
Last summer, LeLaulu and Arbib met for a four-day mission to Ethiopia. (Both brought along family members.) One objective was to deliver medicines to the Mother Teresa Orphanage on the outskirts of the capital, Addis Ababa, home to more than 400 children infected with HIV. Counterpart acquired antiretroviral drugs in Amsterdam, and SkyLink flew them to Addis Ababa, from where the two men and their entourage delivered it.
LeLaulu believes such efforts go beyond any token gesture toward corporate social responsibility. “I think he recognizes and feels the actual suffering of other people a lot more acutely than he'd like to share,” he says of Arbib. “He's a big, tough entrepreneurial tycoon. That's what you've got to be if you're a tycoon, isn't it? Heartless? But I've watched his face. He feels a lot of this stuff very much.”
The Ethiopian mission's second objective was to resettle members of a group known as Falash Mura in Israel. These are descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity. Thousands of them now live in squalid transit camps near Addis Ababa and Gondar, a city in the country's northwest, studying Hebrew and basic life skills. Most desperately want to migrate to Israel. Arbib chartered a plane and brought 110 of them to Tel Aviv, where he believes they will enjoy better lives.
Arbib says his private relief missions bring him immense personal satisfaction, and he hopes his two children will follow his example. He doubts that such humanitarian interventions have much impact in the grand scheme of things. But Arbib believes a little is better than nothing at all, and SkyLink is running more relief missions than ever before. He just doesn't know what he will do next. He smiles and shrugs: “I don't know what's happening in the world next.”