Humanitarianism trumps diplomacy

"Tag" is devoted to bringing Israeli and Jewish expertise to communities in developing nations and disaster-affected areas.

By GILAH KAHN-HOFFMANN
July 27, 2011 23:41
Children in Sri Lanka

Children311. (photo credit: Eytan Shouker/Tag International Development))

Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jews sat together in a Beduin tent in the heart of Amman this week, joking that the tableside nargila was a different kind of peace pipe. They dipped into humous, Middle Eastern salads, rice, chicken and beef, and sampled the paper-thin bread baked on a stone at the entrance to the spacious Rem Al- Buadi restaurant, alongside Jordanian families whose children chased each other around the illuminated fountains.

The professionals from Indonesia, Sri Lanka and Israel were in Jordan for the continuation of a two-week workshop that began in Israel, focusing on community development, community resilience and disaster risk reduction.

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Led by Israeli experts at the Golda Meir Mount Carmel International Training Center in Haifa, the workshop was sponsored by Tag International Development; Mashav, Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation; and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Tag, a British nonprofit, apolitical, international organization, is devoted to bringing Israeli and Jewish expertise to communities in developing nations and disaster-affected areas.

 Tag community development workshopIn Amman, the group was hosted by Tag and the Jordan Red Crescent (JRC), which presented sessions on its experience with disaster preparedness and community development.

Stressing the importance of people-to- people peacemaking efforts, JRC president Dr. Muhammad al-Hadid pointed out that the JRC has excellent relations with Magen David Adom (MDA). Both organizations are members of the International Federation of the Red Cross. In fact, in 2009, in cooperation with MDA, the JRC sent a group of 15 paramedics to study at Ben-Gurion University for two years, and two members of the group are staying on in Israel for further MDA training at Soroka Hospital before returning to Jordan to apply their training at home.

Noting that this was the first (and so far only) group of Jordanians to study at an Israeli university, Hadid said the decision to send the students had drawn criticism and opposition from some of his countrymen. However, he said, “I believe in what I’m doing, so I don’t pay attention. I visit Israel whenever I am invited, which is sometimes every couple of months. I believe in patience and compassion, and also in the difference between ‘loud’ and ‘sane’” – a reference to his detractors.

“I remind them that during the days of the Prophet Muhammad, during the wars, the prophet said, ‘Every prisoner you have who can teach 10 Muslims to read and write, set him free,’” he continued. “I am sending paramedics to learn from Israelis. The Israelis are the best paramedics in the world – if it was good enough for Muhammad, it’s good enough for me.

If you feel strongly about things, and you do them with your whole heart, things will change.”

Hadid repeatedly stressed his commitment to humanitarian connections between all peoples, citing Tag for its efforts around the world.

Referring to the cold peace between Israel and Jordan, he said, “There should be no borders between peoples of the world. People of different backgrounds are all human beings… they all want a safer region, a better future for their children. Humanitarian relations are very important. We always judge people before we meet them.

Humanitarian relations give us the chance to explore the other person and see them in another way.

“King Hussein once said that war is launched by governments, but it is the people who make peace,” he added.

“If people are prepared for dialogue, they will realize that there is no difference between us – as we are realizing in Amman today.” Tag community development workshop

FURTHER EVIDENCE of humanitarian motives trumping diplomatic hostility was on display at the training center in Haifa just a few days earlier, when Muslims and Christians from Indonesia – which is home to the world’s largest Muslim population and does not have diplomatic relations with Israel – shared experience, dilemmas and best practices with their Israeli peers.

The interfaith group was organized by Indonesia’s YAKKUM Christian Foundation for Public Health. The Muslim participants represented one of the country’s largest Muslim organizations.

With 12 hospitals, YAKKUM, a church-based NGO, is the largest Christian organization in Indonesia. It operates a comprehensive social, educational and health-care system throughout the country in 350 poverty- stricken and disaster-prone areas.

For YAKKUM’s Paula Hartyastuty, as a Christian who had “studied the Bible since childhood,” a visit to the Holy Land was “a dream come true” – but she admitted that she had expected Israel to be an expanse of desert land, and had been surprised to find that it was “just like Europe.”

The head of the Community Development Unit at YAKKUM’s largest hospital, Hartyastuty had also been sure Israel was overrun with soldiers and police “like we see on the news,” and the dangers of terrorism had crossed her mind. Following 10 days in Israel, she was impressed by the country’s “pluralism – there are mosques here...In Indonesia, people think that in this Jewish country, all the Jews are religious, but this isn’t true.”

A Muslim participant (the Muslims in the group preferred that their names not appear in print) pointed out that despite the absence of diplomatic relations, Israel and Indonesia benefited from unofficial exchanges of knowledge. He expressed his gratitude to Tag for initiating the seminar that had brought him to Israel and succeeded in creating what he hoped would be lasting connections among the participants from the four countries.

Another Muslim participant, an academic and volunteer community activist, stated that much of what he had learned in Israel could be adapted to the needs of his organization. He was especially intrigued by Israeli methods for sustaining community centers economically and for attracting and maintaining skilled volunteers.

Both Indonesians and Sri Lankans said that while the idea of a physical center for the community that was available to different interest groups was well-entrenched, the concept of an arena for promoting community resilience and development as it exists in Israel was new and exciting to them. All were eager to bring the model home and adapt it to their particular needs and conditions.

AT THE Neve Yosef Community Center, in a disadvantaged Haifa neighborhood that was on the front line during the 2006 Second Lebanon War, participants discovered that lessons learned by Israelis under fire could be applied to disasters as apparently dissimilar as the eruption of Mount Merapi in 2010 in Central Java, Indonesia, and the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and Indonesia.

In between disasters, Israel’s community centers strive to improve quality of life, based on the communities’ needs, values and priorities. They also help their members to overcome social obstacles, and provide opportunities for empowerment, volunteerism and the assumption of leadership roles.

This experience also contributes to the projects Tag is implementing, with the support of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, in Indonesia and Sri Lanka.

Christinrajah Kirubaharan, a 29- year-old Sri Lankan pastor who was born in a Tamil refugee camp, “heard God’s call at the age of 10.” Today he works as a district coordinator in the North of his country for Sarvodaya, Sri Lanka’s largest grassroots organization dedicated to social and economic empowerment. In their spare time, he and his wife are busy with English lessons and reconciliation work for children, following their country’s 30-year civil war.

Kirubaharan was most impressed with the concept of asset-based community development, and the way the Israelis he had encountered during the workshop put a “positive spin on crisis and conflict” – leveraging it as an opportunity for streamlining and growth.

Abdul Careem Lasalebbe, director of Sarvodaya’s largest training center in Batticaloa, in eastern Sri Lanka, smiled as he confessed to being pleasantly surprised at Israeli driving habits – he had heard some pretty bad stories, he said.

With Tag’s support, Lasalebbe hopes to create a pilot community center based on the Israeli model in his training center as early as September. The center will serve the returning Tamil population that survived the tsunami and was displaced by the civil war.

Tag Chief Operating Officer Dr. Amos Avgar confirmed that his organization would continue to contribute expertise to projects in both Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The project in Indonesia, to be carried out by the interfaith contingent from YAKKUM, aims to develop a community center model to help to facilitate YAKKUM’s response to the needs of the villagers around Mount Merapi. The flow of lava and ashes from last year’s eruption left more than 100,000, homeless and traumatized.

Similarly, in the villages in eastern Sri Lanka, Tag is partnering with Sarvodaya to help develop a model for a “safe community,” in an attempt to strengthen resilience in communities that suffered multiple traumas following displacement during the civil war, the effects of the tsunami, and the displacement and damage caused by recent recurring floods, which affected more than one million people. Additional ideas for projects that developed during the workshop are also under consideration.

Dr. Sigit Wijayanto, a senior member of the board of YAKKUM and leader of the interfaith cohort, expressed his group’s deep appreciation to the JRC for its “wonderful hospitality” and to the Mount Carmel Center in Haifa “for providing an excellent environment for learning – simple, homey and friendly facilities.”

Of the workshop content, he commented, “The participants learned much from the 25 sessions. Although not all can be adapted in the Indonesian context, it has led to many ideas and inspiration. For example, the participants were very impressed with Israel’s success with dairy cattle and integrated farming as a source of income for rural people.”

YAKKUM’s Hartyastuty believes that “it is difficult to influence the government, but people-to-people connections will make the difference...the programs that we implement in our hospitals and villages, in our ‘hospitals without walls,’ like primary healthcare, HIV prevention, [programs for] sanitation and [clean] water, mother and baby health, tropical disease and leprosy prevention… the Israeli model will help us to maximize the communities’ potential to continue to cope with these problems on their own.”


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