“The current refugee crisis in Europe is one that rightly strikes a particular chord among Jews,” IsraAID director Shachar Zahavi told The Algemeiner on Tuesday, as his relief organization headed to Greece, where thousands of refugees from Iraq and Syria have amassed, mainly on the islands of Lesbos and Kos. “Never since World War II has there been such an exodus of displaced people seeking asylum. It is a human tragedy that has to be dealt with – and as quickly as possible.”
IsraAID: The Israel Forum for International Human Aid, a non-profit, non-governmental agency, is known for dispatching expert teams to areas of the world struck by natural and other disasters. It became especially famous a few months ago for its serious and prolonged efforts in Nepal after a devastating earthquake struck the country.
Its current preliminary sortie to Lesbos happened to coincide with the eruption of violent clashes on the island (formerly a tourist paradise) between Greek police and Middle Eastern migrants and refugees, who have been arriving in droves, via Turkey, where an estimated two million people have arrived escaping their poverty-stricken, war-torn countries.
According to a Reuters report on Monday, Greek authorities are overwhelmed, and asking the European Union for aid. Interim Migration Minister Yannis Mouzalas called the situation “wretched,” and International Rescue Committee field director Kirk Day said, “We are truly in the midst of a humanitarian disaster,” pointing to the rough conditions and declining hygiene of the masses, far more than the small island can cope with.
“None of these things can be addressed with this many people here … The only way forward is to move these people off the island immediately,” Day said.
It is precisely this plight that Zahavi hopes to alleviate. The three aid workers dispatched yesterday cannot do this on their own, he said. “They were sent for the purpose of scouting the scene, and to report back on the type and amount of assistance both locals and newcomers need.
“We are also in talks with the Greek authorities,” he said, explaining that his organization does not impose itself on any government or population, but rather offers its expertise in handling crises of all kinds.
Zahavi was unable to assess how long the current operation – called Journey of Hope – will take, or how much manpower will be required. However, he said, “Though the bulk of the refugees are on the Greek island temporarily, with the goal of ending up in Germany, it could take quite a long time for this to happen.”
In the meantime, IsraAID wants to “set up shop” there to minimize the suffering of all concerned.
Zahavi described the two-pronged aim of Journey of Hope: “To provide psycho-sociological help to local professionals, whether they be police, social workers or any others who have to deal with this influx of tens of thousands of traumatized people; and physical help to the refugees, through the distribution of equipment, such as hygiene kits, clothes, mattresses and food.”
What IsraAID does not have to do in this case is build temporary structures for housing and field hospitals for its staff, as it had to do in Nepal, for instance. This, explained Zahavi, is one advantage of operating in a developed country.
Asked what gives Israel in general and IsraAID in particular the ability to assist other countries confront challenges such as this one, Zahavi said, “Israel has a wealth of experience in dealing with and absorbing sudden spurts of mass immigration, both legal and illegal. Take the influx of Russians, Ethiopians and foreign workers, for example. And IsraAID is already working in Jordan and the Kurdish region of Iraq to help them absorb Syrian refugees. We also spent eight months in Bulgaria last year, cooperating with the Bulgarian Red Cross, to deal with the influx of Syrian refugees there.”
Zahavi called this leg of Journey of Hope “only the beginning. We are also preparing to provide assistance at the destination points in Europe where the refugees end up after leaving Greece, mainly Germany, but also Italy, Hungary and other countries.”
Funding for this, as for previous, operations comes from individual donors and foundations, Zahavi said. “What we have managed to collect so far is enough to get us started. Israelis and Jews from around the world have been asking if they can help; those who don’t have money to contribute are offering to volunteer their services. This crisis has really touched a nerve. European Jewry is being galvanized, because of what European Jewry went through in the past. At the moment, it seems that it is touching European Jews more than American ones, though Labor Day weekend, when Americans are preoccupied, made it hard to tell. I urge American Jews to realize this is not a local Jewish issue, but a global one.”
Why does he think it is a “Jewish issue” at all?
“Because we as a nation know what it feels like to be forced to wander; we experienced the Holocaust; we were at the mercy of countries to which we needed to flee,” he said, concluding with an explanation of why he believes the current situation can also be perceived as an opportunity.
“IsraAID is not a political organization. But it is important to show Europeans that Israel isn’t the way they imagine it, often very negatively. This is important.”
Established in 2001, IsraAID has operated in 27 countries “affected by war, natural disaster, acute poverty and massive displacement. [Its] teams arrive during a time of crisis, facilitate a transition to long-term stability, and then exit within five years.”
Previous crises for which IsraAID provided extensive care include: the drought in Kenya; the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa; the typhoon in the Philippines; the tsunami in Japan; the earthquake in Haiti; and Hurricane Katrina.