By Brendan Cavanaugh, TDH Canada Secretary General
Published January 2011


Naomi Bronstein was a hands-on, do-it-herself activist for children. She established orphanages in Vietnam, Cambodia and Guatemala. She was running a mobile medical clinic for rural children in Guatemala when she went to sleep on December 23, 2010 and died during the night. She had poor health including heart disease for a number of years and her heart finally gave out. She was 65.
Her death marks the beginning of the end of an era. She was part of the social phenomenon in Montreal that initiated and developed international adoption in Canada.

A Child of the Times

North America in the late 50s to early 70s was the era of the Beatles, President Jack Kennedy and Rev. Martin Luther King, Pierre Elliot Trudeau, and most pervasive of all, it was the era of the amorphous spirit of the youth-inspired Peace Movement which promoted many other things, some of them good, some of them not-so-good. Among the good was a concern for racial equality and global responsibility. Mottoes like ‘Make Love, not War!’ and ‘We are the Human Family!’ were everywhere. Books were being published threatening a future of overcrowding and scarcity of food. The war in Vietnam produced an awareness of war-orphaned and war-wounded children. All those things combined to produce a social attitude out of which arose the idea in the mind of many couples that both having children and adopting children would be a good thing and some couples took the concrete action of exploring international adoption.

But the fact was that at that time there was hardly anything to explore; there was little information to be found on the topic. The sole putative source, the government social services offices, were worse than useless. They were off-putting and actively discouraging. It took a certain style of independent, self-determining, and resourceful character to persevere with enough focused interest in international adoption to even continue researching the idea of international adoption, much less trying to accomplish it. Not that anyone of that period foresaw the implications of their aspiration.

Montreal Families Attempt International Adoptions

In the 1970s a small group of people living in the West Island of Montreal with a common interest in international adoption had found each other and met at the home of Ray and Liz Mowling under the encouraging banner ofWelcome a Child. Brendan and Dorinda Cavanaugh were among them. The constant topic was “From where could we adopt a child?” With all the problems reported about orphaned and abandoned children around the world, no one initially expected it to be so difficult. None of us knew it at the time, but we were in the process of developing a life-long commitment to the care of children in the international arena.

The only adoptions from Vietnam at that time were through the remarkable Australian, Rosemary Taylor. Rosemary was strongly supported by TDH Lausanne, Switzerland through the Swiss nurse sent to Vietnam by its founder, Edmund Kaiser. Liz Mowling had met Kaiser’s representative in Canada, the Swiss Charlotte Spire of TDH Lausanne. These connections made it possible for Vietnamese children to be adopted by Canadian families, including that of Herb and Naomi Bronstein. This preceded the establishment of TDH Canada as an organization by Brendan and Dorinda Cavanaugh.

Apart from the Welcome a Child group, three other couples were independently exploring international adoption at the same time: Sandra Simpson and her husband, Bonnie Cappucino and Fred, Naomi Bronstein and Herb. The husbands in these couples, all of them busy with their jobs, were all supportive and collaborative participants in the international adoption projects.  But the wives in these couples were all particularly strong people and were the natural leaders in the quest for a child: Naomi Bronstein, Sandra Simpson, and Bonnie Cappucino. They were the counterparts of Dorinda Cavanaugh and Liz Mowling  but not their their associates as they were determinedly independent and had only a peripheral relationship to the Welcome a Child group. Moreover each couple had their own style of doing things and philosophy about how to do it. Eventually Sandra focused on Bangladesh, Bonnie on India, Naomi on Cambodia and, most recently, Guatemala.

Naomi Bronstein Galvanized to Do More

The Bronstein’s involvement with Vietnam began in 1971 when Naomi and her husband Herb, at that time the 33-year-old sales manager of a Montreal knitting mill, decided to look into adopting a child. In the process Naomi discovered a prejudice against international adoption in the Montreal social service and the impact on children of cultural prejudices in other countries. An activist by personality, she became outraged at the fact of children left to languish in orphanages in Vietnam and everywhere else because they were culturally unacceptable. Speaking decades go to the Ottawa Citizen, Naomi described how during the lengthy process of completing the paperwork for international adoption, the babies died – and no one cared.

Naomi’s first reaction to the plight of children was extremely personal. She adopted as many as she could: three from Vietnam, one from Cambodia, another from Ecuador, then a sixth from Canada, ending up with 13 children, seven of which were adopted. Next she broadened her perspective and helped over 650 more to find new homes with other families in various countries by facilitating international adoption.

Eager to do more, Naomi began traveling to Vietnam and Cambodia, at her own expense, to arrange adoptions for others. Naomi was a dedicated worker whose style was that of a determined activist with little patience for the obstacles of bureaucracy, badly made laws, and people who did not work at her intense pace. Her impatience often cost her heavily in terms of good will and often resulted in opposition and lack of cooperation.

Operation Baby-Lift

In 1975 Naomi, who was only 29 at the time, was absent from the role of housewife and mother to her 11 children back in Montreal and in Saigon arranging for another planeload of children to be flown to Canada. On April 4, as North Vietnamese troops advanced on Saigon, an Air Force C-5A cargo jet took off from the city carrying some 240 orphans, their escorts and military personnel. Minutes after takeoff a rear door blew off and the plane crashed, the upper deck fell down onto the lower deck of the plane, crushing the children and workers.

Naomi sprung into action immediately. Commandeering an orphanage ambulance, she raced through the streets to the wreckage and began transporting the injured to hospitals. A photo of her anguished face was flashed around the world and she instantly became the poster image for ill-fated ‘Operation Baby-Lift’ and the appalling death of 140 Vietnamese infants.

The Aftermath and the Guilt

The experience left Naomi traumatized. She had originally found many of the orphans more dead than alive, in boxes and handbags, in places where evil has had its way. And now over 100 of her children were dead. They had been in her care and she confessed to burning with feelings of survivor’s guilt: She was supposed to be on the plane but had decided not to go at the last minute. Her friend took her place. Naomi’s grief was profound.

These tragic deaths indelibly marked Naomi’s attitude towards life. She particularly recalled the sight of a decapitated serviceman and of an infant whose arm fell off when the child was lifted. “Until then I hadn’t been afraid of being in Vietnam. I thought, ‘If you’re doing good and you’re apolitical, who is going to hurt you?’ But the plane crash blew away those reassurances.” Her sense of innocence and security was shattered by the violence of reality. The horror changed Naomi Bronstein into a zealot focused on saving children and altered her marriage and the lives of her children. “One does not become insane, but one will never be the same person again”, she reflected.

Naomi in the Media

In April 1975, a picture of Naomi Bronstein, in shock at the site of a plane crash in Saigon, captured the expression of a traumatized woman. The picture made headlines and became permanently associated with the tragedy. Her experiences are the subject of the documentary film: The United Colors of Bronstein. This 2001 work, now in the Telefilm Canada catalogue, traces Naomi’s fast-paced life and highlights an emotional reunion – 25 years later – with some of the very few orphans who miraculously escaped the crash and were adopted by Canadian families. Hargrove Entertainment, an international distribution and production company, observed that “This brave and determined lady never once questioned that, no matter the odds, one person can make a difference. And that every tiny life she saved would make a difference too.”

The Founding of Canada House in Cambodia

After ‘Operation Baby-Lift’, as the war progressed toward Saigon and Vietnam became more dangerous, Naomi began working across the border in Cambodia. She started an orphanage called Canada House there in 1972, as the Vietnam War continued. When the Khmer Rouge forced her to return to Canada, Canada House languished. She returned to Cambodia to re-establish it in 1989. But when she had to return to Canada a second time, it once again faltered; Naomi had been unable to establish sufficient support funding. In 1995 unpaid rent and other financial problems forced the staff to move to a smaller house. The name was changed toCambodia House, but by 1996 all of the remaining children were adopted and the house was closed. The Bronsteins also had adopted three more Southeast Asian boys: Sanh, Hong and Dov (the last had been found under the body of his mother, murdered by the Khmer Rouge) and an Ecuadorian girl, Pilar. Naomi also gave birth to two more children.

Personal Passion Trumps Diplomacy and Cultural Acceptance

The mortality rate in Vietnamese orphanages at that time was more than 50 per cent. Care was primitive and brutal. Children’s legs often atrophied because they were confined to small boxes and badly neglected. Naomi came into conflict with the difference of cultural perspective and the customs of another culture. It was not a lesson she ever learned to accept with much grace.

If she found it difficult to tolerate the problems of her own culture, Naomi found it nearly impossible to adjust to the cultural attitudes of other cultural traditions. “It’s so hard when you see a child continue to suffer with problems that could be taken care of easily in Canada.”

Naomi’s experiences did not temper her way of talking. The problems she had faced gave her a harsh edge and a sharp tongue. The jagged brim of her sense of responsibility chaffed her soul and made her impatient. She ardently wanted others, especially those who had been adopted, to understand and appreciate what had been done for them. Perhaps it was too much to ask; perhaps her passion frightened or offended her listeners. Perhaps the message could have been stated more diplomatically. But no one ever accused Naomi of being diplomatic. Patient diplomacy is not usually a trait common to activists.

Whatever the reasons, her remarks to adoptees generated a certain amount of negative reaction. One adoptee wrote in a blog, “I can respect and admire her work, but her presumption to tell adoptees their “place” is annoying and a bit condescending. I think many of us grow up with enough guilt trips, thank you very much.” And another wrote, “No, we did not ask to be born under such terrible conditions nor did we ask to be obligated with other people’s ideas of how we should direct our “gratitude” over our good fortune. Just as I itch at people doling out the role of “bridges” to adoptees, the presumption that I am somehow obligated to “give back” to her particular cause makes my eyes cross. Who is she?” Youths are not generally perceptive or experienced enough to understand their elders. Nevertheless, clearly gratitude can be a terrible burden to bear, and it takes maturity and grace to be able to bear it well.

Facing Prejudice at Home

The Bronsteins moved to Ottawa in 1981 into a 15-room brick house in the suburbs. The clan include Herb, 43, Naomi, 39, and 11 of their very assorted children, ages 10 to 20 (the 12th, Hong, age 25, was then working as a chef and no longer lived at home. They faced some social issues. Naomi played down the family’s multiracial mix. When the uninitiated stare in confusion, she simply explained that “the children all have different fathers,” and happily watched jaws drop farther. When outsiders behaved more rudely, “We deal with them like Gandhi—nonviolently,” she quipped. “Once we went through a period of several days when kids threw rock-hard snowballs at us on the street. We did not fight back—we simply ignored them and they stopped.”

Naomi made the point that because four of her adopted children arrived as babies, and because virtually nothing is known about their parents, their strongest identity is as Canadians. “It’s a lot easier to explain to the children from a war situation why they have no parents than to our Shanin, who is the natural daughter of a white man and a Canadian black woman.” Concerning the Asian children’s cultural heritage, she says, “We do not observe holidays from their countries, but since I travel frequently to Korea and Thailand, we’re very conscious of Asia. We eat many Asian dishes at home—I’m the only one who can’t use chopsticks! The children are Canadian, but something of their past endures in them.”

An Activist But Not a Builder

War-torn Vietnam was chaotic at the time Naomi was there. She is best known for bringing Vietnamese and Cambodian orphans to North America for adoption in the 1970s through the international adoption system under conditions of war. But Naomi was dismayed at the lack of structures for international adoption. “Where were all these people a year ago?” she asked angrily. “If we had brought these children out in orderly groups over the past two years how many could have been saved?” But that was rhetoric.

Right from the start of her involvement in international adoption regulations, procedures and rules had been a problem for Naomi. Looking at the needs of children, she wanted things done now! But the fact is that bureaucrats, with some rare but notable exceptions, are not interested in that aspect of a child’s need; their perspective is one of regulations and forms. And international adoption has more than its share of regulations to follow and forms to fill out. Some hold that the international adoption system has been corrupted by politics and commercialization. Those issues are far greater than any one person can resolve. But Naomi could not accept that facet of human social organization and her activist style did not promote the smooth development of orderly functioning. She was a person who responded more to emergency situations than to routine ones. Yet it is true the plight of children is often that of an emergency; the child’s time is ‘now’, not when it is politically or bureaucratically convenient. The politicians and the bureaucrats do not understand that aspect of reality.

Mother Theresa She Was Not

Jeff Danziger, whose adopted daughter Kim was brought to North America by Naomi in 1975, said her humanitarian work with children was “unparalleled.”  His comment was that, “She was completely selfless”. Well, her activist style was somewhat unique, but it certainly was not unparalleled. She was intensely focused on the need of the child, to the exclusion of just about everything else, including herself. Nevertheless her activist style closed a lot of doors.

Naomi was sometimes, but somewhat inappropriately, dubbed the ‘Canadian Mother Theresa’ as wrote reporter Katherine Wilton, in Postmedia News, December 30, 2010 – a remark which suggested that Wilton understood neither woman. Naomi was an outstanding activist; there is no need to make her out to be something she was not. Mother Theresa was firmly entrenched in organizational approach. Naomi was reactive, Theresa was proactive. Naomi was a do-it-yourself activist; structure and long-term planning was not her thing. Theresa well understood the value of structure and organization. Mother Theresa’s motive’s were religiously inspired. That was not true of Naomi; she was more of a humanist. Mother Theresa established a world-wide organization. Naomi did not do that either. She tended to get other people to do good things, and then move on.

The Founding of Healing the Children

Naomi had moved her family to Guatemala in 1971, where she established Casa Canada, which provided medical care for poor children in Guatemala City. During this period she was presented with a child who needed heart surgery. She thought of Chris and Gary Embleton of Spokane, Washington.

The Embletons had been sensitized to the plight of children by a very personal experience. In 1974, Chris and Gary lost their recently adopted Korean daughter, Lori Jo, to an illness that could have been cured by $5 worth of medicine had treatment been available in her native country. Five years later Naomi called Chris about this Guatemalan child in need of emergency surgery to correct a life-threatening heart defect. Chris responded by arranging doctors, a hospital and a foster family. The experience planted a seed of the idea to found an organization to provide medical care and treatment to children who needed in from anywhere in the world. The Embletons threw themselves into the project whole-heartedly. Thus Healing the Children began with Naomi’s phone call from Guatemala.

Naomi tried to set up the organization as a Canadian non-profit group that brought critically ill children from various countries to Canada for treatment. But in Ottawa Naomi was faced with the criticism that Canadian money should not be spent on foreign people. So she looked to the United States. As a result of the Canadian criticism, in 1989 Chris and Gary Embleton, Naomi Bronstein and Maureen O’Keefe founded the non-profit corporation in Spokane, Washington as  Healing the Children.

Within twenty-five years the organization has established at least 15 chapters in 23 states, works with more than 100 American hospitals and has received donations in the millions of dollars. Collectively, the Healing the Children groups have provided care to more than 85,000 children in about 100 countries. In 1989, the year it was incorporated, medical operations were scheduled for 21 Korean children and then had to be cancelled because there was not enough money to pay for them. Naomi Bronstein staged a 21-day hunger-strike. Her protest helped to raise $110,000 and the children received the operations.

Naomi, the independent activist, remained a friend of the Embletons and a very real activist volunteer withHealing the Children, as she was often identified to be. All this being said, the contrast between Healing the Children’s fundraising and Naomi’s own desperate poverty in Guatemala is striking. Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned in this contrast, namely that the solitary activist needs committed supportive relationships – even in spite of their behaviour. The dedicated zealot does not even enter a popularity contest, much less try to win one. But it is the activist who moves things forward – and that is needed everywhere.

Challenges at Home and Back in Guatemala

In the late 1980s Naomi and her family had returned to Montreal, where she was born and raised, because Herb’s import/export business required it. But Herb did not stay with her. Her children were grown, and she did not stay in Canada.

For the last several years Naomi had been living in Guatemala. She expressed some of the nature of her challenges in Guatemala in a poignant letter to one of her friends:  Her colleagues in Guatemala were killed. Her financial support stopped without explanation. In addition to herself she was struggling to support local families she considered to be in a desperate situation, “But I have to live and raise money for these children, who have nothing but more misery to look forward to this year…”  She was faced with oncoming severe weather and she was feeling absolutely alone and bereft of all support.

The project Naomi was working on in Guatemala when she died was certainly unique. She hunted down old school buses and turned them into mobile medical clinics. They roam the Guatemalan countryside where infant mortality is about 80%. They are the only medical care available.

In the End, Public Honours and Private Sacrifices

Naomi’s activist dedication consumed her marriage, her personal life, and left her children full of admiration for the activist, but feeling bereft of their mother. With true generosity of spirit her daughter Heidi Bronstein said at her mother’s funeral, “She believed that every child had a right to life and dedicated her life to making this goal a reality for as many children as she possibly could. She was living proof that one person can make a difference.” But her children also said that they would have liked to have had a little more of her to themselves.

Naomi Bronstein’s work had obtained numerous honours for her, some of it with money attached – it all went into her activist work. Naomi has received the Order of Canada and many other awards recognizing her work with children in Cambodia, Vietnam, Korea and Guatemala. In accepting the Order of Canada award at the government presentation ceremony — with then Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau looking on — she explained the simple principle that, coupled with an exceptional willingness to act, has guided her work and life: “I just can’t sit on my backside and allow innocent children to suffer. In Vietnam and since, I’ve always asked myself, ‘What would I do if it was the life of one of my own children at stake?’ And I have to think of all children the same way. People say that what we do is a drop in the bucket, but my answer is that if everyone helped one child we could go a long way towards helping the 41 million children in the world who need medical attention.”

Naomi’s activist life resulted in a great many stories. It was reported that Paraview Literary Agency’s Lisa Hagan was helping her to collect them into a book. We do not know where that project is now but Naomi Bronstein’s life offers a history lesson and a legacy worth sharing with the world today.

I welcome your comments on these issues.

Brendan Cavanaugh