McLean firm sets up communications for Red Cross in Haiti

"It's one thing to send money, but it is another to actually help with your own hands," Omar Rafik said. (Shamus Ian Fatzinger/fairfax County Times)
By Gregg MacDonald
Fairfax County Times
Thursday, March 4, 2010

On Valentine's Day, Omar Rafik kissed his wife goodbye in Manassas and left for Haiti on what he thought would be a three-day trip.

He returned nearly two weeks later, "emotionally, mentally and physically drained," he said, and having seen things that would haunt him for the rest of his life.

Rafik, 50, is a systems engineer for McLean-based Spacenet Integrated Government Solutions.

The company, a division of Spacenet, provides the departments of defense and homeland security and other intelligence agencies with portable, independent satellite communication networks.

When the company heard that the communications infrastructure in Haiti had been demolished in the recent earthquake, it contacted the American Red Cross and donated its services. In early February, Spacenet asked its 130 McLean employees for a volunteer to travel to Haiti. "I wanted to do some good in person, for my own sense of self-worth," Rafik said. "It's one thing to send money, but it is another to actually help with your own hands."

Along with a partner, Echostar Satellite Services, the company shipped small dish antennas and two-way ground stations to Haiti, said Jon Douglas, Spacenet IGS marketing director. "These systems are transportable and can be deployed quickly, providing a wireless link completely independent of the local Haitian infrastructure," Douglas said.

Rafik traveled to the earthquake-ravaged country to set up the equipment. In addition to 90 pounds of wires, batteries, connectors and other installation equipment, he took seven pounds of candy. "The level of sheer, genuine gratitude that a Haitian child displays when you give them a lollipop is just heartbreaking," Rafik said.

He soon realized that accomplishing his objectives was going to take longer than expected. "There is so much devastation in and around Port-au-Prince that traveling 30 miles by car can take nearly four hours," Rafik said. "I knew immediately after I arrived that I wouldn't be going home anytime soon."

With minimal local help, he began the arduous task of setting up several "non-penetrating" satellite dishes, first locating stable ground and then clearing away rubble. That meant disposing of huge concrete slabs, cinder blocks and other heavy objects. Heavy objects then had to be placed back on the bases of the satellite dishes to keep the wind from knocking them down.

"For dishes placed on roofs of surviving buildings, we had to manually carry cinder blocks up a ladder one at a time to hold the satellite dishes down with," Rafik said. "Then, of course, once they were set up, I had to make sure they all worked. That took the majority of my time."

His efforts supplied four relief sites with wireless Internet service, which allows the 250 International Red Cross teams in Haiti to communicate their medical and personnel needs and requisition supplies.

"It has honestly been a lifesaver," Colin Chaperone of the Red Cross said. "We are now able to access real-time information from our headquarters and other hubs, enabling us to work more efficiently at saving human lives."

"The trip has truly enriched my life," said Rafik, who returned home Feb. 26. "Even with the ever-present smell of decomposing bodies, the swarms of mosquitoes and the insufferable heat, I wouldn't trade it for anything. It was the experience of a lifetime."

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