By Alan Hustak on January 2, 2011

Naomi Bronstein, who died in Guatemala City on Dec. 23 at the age of 65,  was a humanitarian,  Children’s aid worker and a non-conformist whose abrasive  personality earned her a reputation as the swearing Mother Teresa. 

Bronstein, who married when she was 17  and had four children of her own, was only in her early 20s when she  devoted her life to improving the welfare of children orphaned by war. Her forthright manner was a force for good.  Over four decades she was responsible for having given an estimated 140,000 children from Cambodia, Viet Nam, Korea and Central America a new lease on life. 

“Her methods were unorthodox, she broke down borders between countries,  manipulated politicians, crashed through red tape and in the end managed to save  lives,” her daughter Heidi told mourners at the funeral.

Naomi Segal, the daughter of a Montreal textile merchant, was born in on Sept. 22, 1945, and raised in comfortable circumstances in Outremont.  Even as a young girl she was consumed with the idea of helping the sick and the dispossessed.  At 12 she was a volunteer at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital in Montreal.  In 1962  she married another youthful idealist, Herbert Bronstein, a knitting mill sales manager.  By the time they volunteered with a Canadian relief mission to Cambodia in 1969 they already had three children of their own.  Appalled at the horror of the civil war in Cambodia and its effect on the civilian population,  Bronstein  opened an orphanage in Phnom Penh known as Canada House.  “Not content to raise her own family she decided to raise the whole worlds.” said her son Brian.  “She lived a life of sacrifice, perhaps too many sacrifices.”  She then co-founded Families for Children, an organization that placed orphans with families Europe and north America .  Driven out of Phnom Penh by the Khmer Rouge,  Bronstein  continued her work with Operation Baby Lift in Viet Nam.   There she was traumatized when a plane ferrying 100 orphans to the United States in 1975 crashed and burned in Saigon just after takeoff killing everyone on board.   Bronstein was to have been on the plane, but missed the flight when her plans were altered at the last minute.  In 1976 she moved to Guatemala following an earthquake which that year devastated the country.  She returned to Canada in the early 1980s, and became a volunteer with Healing The Children Canada, an Ottawa based agency which offers specialized medical care in North America to needy Third World children.  By then her marriage was ending and in 1986 she went back to Guatemala to continue her work, using an old school bus that had been converted into a mobile hospital.

 “Where others would have given up she kept going and she did so in the most appalling conditions,” Rabbi Alan Bright said at her funeral in Montreal on New Year’s Eve. “She believed every child had a right to life.  She dedicated her life to making that reality a possibility. She saved so many by giving up so much herself. She was not only a mother to her own children, but a mother and a savior to poverty stricken children around the world.”

Bronstein received the Order of Canada in 1983 and the Royal Bank Award in 1997.

 A 2001 documentary about her work, A Moment in Time: The United Colours of Bronstein, was nominated for a Gemini Award in 2001. 

She was predeceased by a son.  She leaves her mother, a family of 11 children,  18 grand children and an extended family too big to count.


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