IsraAID: Israel's beacon of light, giving humanitarian aid

IsraAID extends a helping hand to people across the globe, most recently to Ukrainian refugees in Moldova.

 A member of IsraAID’s team helping Ukrainian refugees in Moldova on March 18. (photo credit: MAXIM CHUMASH)
A member of IsraAID’s team helping Ukrainian refugees in Moldova on March 18.
(photo credit: MAXIM CHUMASH)
Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)Jerusalem Report logo small (credit: JPOST STAFF)

A funny thing happened to me on the way to writing about why Israelis receive more charity than they generally give.

My editor suggested I write a story about IsraAID, a global organization based in Israel that helps distressed people worldwide. As a direct result of what I learned, I did an abrupt U-turn.

IsraAID has worked in 56 countries for over two decades, bringing rapid effective help to desperate people, including now to Ukrainian refugees. I am embarrassed that I had not known much about it.

Take for instance the chaotic global pandemic year of 2020. In January 2020, IsraAID helped earthquake victims in Puerto Rico; in February, it shipped PPE (personal protective equipment) to Chinese hospitals; in March, it launched its global response to corona; in April, it supported asylum seekers in Israel; in May, it distributed food to Venezuelan refugee families in Colombia; in June, it organized refugee volunteers in Greece and Germany to sew face masks for the vulnerable; in July, it partnered with the UN and the Dominican government to train young people in digital skills; in August, it launched a pilot fund to leverage Israeli technology for humanitarian aid; in September, it responded to the disastrous fire in the Moria refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece; in October, it prepared awareness-raising radio broadcasts on Covid in Mozambique; in November, it responded to Hurricane Iota and Tropical Storm Eta in Colombia and Guatemala; and in December, its “Healthy Return to Schools” program in the Bahamas reached 5,000 students.

And this is just a sample.

 Yotam Polizer, IsraAID’s CEO (credit: ISRAAID) Yotam Polizer, IsraAID’s CEO (credit: ISRAAID)

Yotam Polizer is the organization’s 38-year-old CEO. Here is his story, and that of IsraAID and the not-so-secret sauce that drives it:

Tsunami, Ebola, civil war, earthquakes

“I joined IsraAID as employee No. 2, right after the tsunami in Japan in 2011. I ran a lot of our field operations – in Japan and in Sierra Leone – during and after Ebola. I worked in South Korea helping North Korean refugees. I helped start our program in the Philippines and our program to support Syrian refugees, and I also worked in Nepal after the 2015 earthquake. So I had a lot of emergency relief mission experience.

“And then in late 2016, I went back to Israel to become the co-CEO. That was almost six years ago. And then my co-CEO moved on to continue his studies in late 2019. So I’ve been CEO now for two-and-a-half years.”

Israel’s unique advantage in humanitarian aid

“In many different crises and contexts, we learned what we’re good at and what added value Israel as a country – as a society – has to offer the world, because we’re not operating in a vacuum, there are other organizations. You have the Red Cross, you have the UN, with billions and billions of dollars.

“What do we as a small country, and as a small organization representing a small country, have to offer? What we found out was that the challenges we’re dealing with here in Israel could be a huge advantage. There are many best practices from here that could and should be used in the world’s most vulnerable communities, in disaster areas all over the world.

“Whether it’s water technology that was developed here because of water scarcity, or whether it’s trauma counseling and prevention of post-trauma stress because of our own traumas, there is this Israeli innovative and creative spirit of improvisation. We as Israelis thrive in chaos! Perhaps we can say: we only thrive in chaos. When things are too organized or bureaucratic, we can’t manage. So we go to a disaster area in the most remote parts of the world and it’s very chaotic. Great! We love chaos! We know how to deal with it. We know how to find quick solutions. I have a lot of stories about how we reach an area. We get to the airport. We see big organizations, I won’t name them, they bring tons of equipment and they’re stuck in customs and it takes them days or weeks to figure it out.

“We just go past them and get to the distressed area. Then we find a good local organization that’s thriving. So our humble size is also a huge advantage because it allows us to be much more flexible and dynamic. We know that we can’t do anything without local partners. So we partner with a local church or local mosque, or local Jewish committee, or local government, or whatever is crucial to fulfill our mission. But we also know that we have some expertise to offer, in the areas that I mentioned.

“That’s our goal – to bridge these gaps. When we hear about an event, we usually arrive there within the first 72 hours. But – and this is a very important distinction – it’s one thing to be there, to be there first on the ground, and another to stay long-term!

“I have a lot of dramatic stories about Nepal. For instance, we were able to find the last survivor of the earthquake: a lady who was buried under the rubble for six days without food or water! We pulled out 21 dead bodies and the 22nd person was alive! It was a very, very dramatic operation. I was able to speak to her because I spoke Nepalese. But even more important is that we stay for the very long term.”

 IsraAID’s Ukraine mission in Palanca, Moldova, on March 1 (credit: ETHAN SCHWARTZ) IsraAID’s Ukraine mission in Palanca, Moldova, on March 1 (credit: ETHAN SCHWARTZ)
We’re in it for the long haul!

“And that’s something that really, unfortunately, few organizations do. Most organizations only go for the first week or the first month, or first three months. But after three months, very few organizations actually stay to support long-term needs. Why? Because unfortunately, we know that media attention equals donor attention. And when the media is done, the cameras move on to the next tweet, or the next crisis.

“In our case, the needs are still there and they are long-term needs, especially when you think about trauma and mental health or infrastructure, or the water resources are contaminated because of a volcanic eruption. So it’s even more important for us not only to be there first on the ground but to actually stay when the others are leaving.

“For us an average project is five to seven years in a place. And then, after the initial response, our theory of change, our methodology, is that we build a local team, with some Israeli international experts, but mainly we build a local team, and we train them and train local partners in different fields of expertise, depending on the need, whether it’s medical, educational, water, etc. And then we support them for a few years as they implement it. Because we are also finding out that many of these countries are hit by disasters on an annual basis.

“Essentially, the disaster is an opportunity for us for long-term intervention and for capacity strengthening. Local communities take the lead and support themselves, which is our end goal – that is, when we leave, when we feel that the local community, the local partner, is well trained and is able to have the expertise in-house. Then we can move on and move to the next session. In our 20 years of operation, we’ve been in 56 countries. And currently we have operations, I think, in 15 or 16 countries!”

February 24: Gearing up to help Ukraine

“It always comes at the worst time. For me, the previous operation that I was involved in personally was a dramatic evacuation from Afghanistan. I was actually there on the Afghan border and we evacuated about 200 human rights activists, women judges, women robotics team. [See box].

“Finally, for the first time in six months, I was planning some time off on the weekend, a long weekend in the Negev with my family, my parents, and my wife, and my kids (I have twins who are two years and nine months old).

“We were finally going to the Negev – then in the morning, just when we arrived at our tzimer, we heard the news of Russia’s invasion and immediately I got on a phone call with our senior management team and also our emergency response team – a very small team of about five people who are extremely experienced in emergencies. And we said that we obviously have to respond, but we’re not going to send our teams to an active war zone. We said that we’ll monitor the situation if we see that people are leaving Ukraine.

“A few hours later, we already heard of hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the country on the first day. And we said, Okay, we have to get organized. Thankfully, we also have two things in terms of finance. One, we have an emergency response fund that allows us to respond fast. And two, we also had a donor, a family foundation. They called us and said that if you are responding to Ukraine we’ll provide the first funding for you to respond.

“And after that, there were many other generous donors. So we organized a team and already on that Saturday, February 26, the team left Israel.

“We decided to go to Moldova. The reason we chose Moldova was mainly because we heard there was a large number of refugees there, and also we knew that compared to the other countries, it is the only neighboring country not part of the European Union or NATO. And it’s the country where, unfortunately, they have a lot of problems with human trafficking and it’s very poor. I spoke to the Moldovan ambassador in Israel and he really asked for support.

“Moldova was our destination. At the border crossing called Palanca not far from Odessa, we have seen hundreds of thousands of people. More than 400,000 people have crossed through to Moldova, and some are continuing to Western Europe, but many are staying. I’ve been to a lot of refugee camps and crises, but I think the thing that struck me the most in this specific crisis was that it’s really only women and children, as we know, because the men of Ukraine have to stay behind and fight.

“I went to Moldova twice. Our work in Moldova has been in two main areas. One is relief, pure relief, because it was freezing. People came with nothing but the clothes they wore. We’ve distributed thermal blankets to thousands of refugees. We had some in our warehouse here in Israel. And then we purchased more from different places. They cost 90 cents each. So it’s a very good use of funding. We’ve distributed thousands of them because everyone needed them.

“We built a big tent on the border. We also distributed food and water, and gloves and hats. It was freezing and people were stuck in the cold for days. So this tent that we set up was a safe space for the mothers to rest and relax and for the children to play, and just be kids on the border. And then most of the refugees who stayed in Moldova moved to Chisinau, the capital. We sent another team there, where we started to build child-friendly spaces.

“The refugees were scattered around many camps and public buildings, and the athletic stadium became a huge refugee camp. And in these places, we were also distributing items, but mainly we were setting up these child-friendly spaces, which are like kindergartens. You know, it’s like a place for the kids to play, to learn, to get some sort of relief to relieve their stress. And also for the mothers to be able to rest and re-energize. We’ve recruited very large numbers of Russian-speaking Israelis, people with experience in social work and psychology, in therapy and also in education, early childhood education. We’ve started seven of these centers for women and children so far that we’re still operating.

“And it was very inspiring to see how kids are kids everywhere. The kids are so resilient. One of the most powerful images I have is of kids’ drawings – they’re drawing the war. We didn’t ask them to draw the war, but that’s what they drew. And they’re drawing their homes being bombed. They don’t talk about it much but do so when they have the opportunity to express it through art, which is a method that we’re using in many different countries.

“It’s very powerful. We partner with local organizations; and as I told you, our goal in many places is to build up the local capacity. We recruited some Ukrainian refugees to work with us and some Moldovans as well. There are now about 35 people there on the ground right now, working.”

 A Ukrainian girl walks past an IsraAID sign in Moldova.  (credit: ETHAN SCHWARTZ) A Ukrainian girl walks past an IsraAID sign in Moldova. (credit: ETHAN SCHWARTZ)
Women in the IsraAID team

“I think if women ruled the world, things would look better. We’ve seen this: with Covid, the countries led by women did much better than the others – Germany, New Zealand, Finland. 

In general, I think women should run the world. It’s not by chance [many women lead IsraAID], and I’m proud to be working with this incredible group of women. I learn so much from them – they know how to get things done, they know how to share, how to say what they want. It’s really a big team effort.”

Israelis’ reluctance to donate

“I think there’s a positive change, but it’s too slow. I have seen change now, in the Ukraine crisis, for the first time, and I’ve been doing this work for 14 years. For the first time, I’ve seen significant donations and support coming from Israeli donors and Israeli tech companies. Significant in real numbers, like we received over a million dollars from Israeli donors for this crisis specifically, which is more or less what we received from Israeli donors in the last 20 years combined. So it’s quite significant.”

In synagogues recently, we read the Biblical portion Kedoshim. It includes the commandments: “Do not hate your brother in your heart” and just after it, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” 

Rabbi Akiva said loving thy neighbor as thyself is “a very great precept in Torah.” Indeed it is – alas, so little practiced in a world full of growing tribal hatred, sectarian violence, terrorism, and war crimes.

IsraAID is a beacon of light in a sea of darkness. It shows how Israel, a Jewish country with Jewish values, gives practical meaning to loving our distressed neighbors worldwide, bringing them fast, timely and effective sustained aid.  ■

The writer heads the Zvi Griliches Research Data Center at S. Neaman Institute, Technion, and blogs at www.timnovate.wordpress.com

Rescuing Afghans

IsraAID and partners rescued a group of 41 Afghan women, including members of a girls’ cycling team, girls’ robotics team, and some human rights activists, fleeing Taliban rule. “The issue was to collect them from hiding,” said IsraAID CEO Yotam Polizer. The rescuers “had to do rounds around the city in alleys to pick up these people and try not to create any suspicious movement... A jet chartered by Sylvan Adams, a Canadian-Israeli philanthropist, flew them from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, to the United Arab Emirates on September 6, accompanied by IsraAID, where they were well cared for.