From Kurdistan to Nepal: IsraAID makes a difference

IsraAID is involved in humanitarian efforts around the world, even in regions that are traditionally less friendly to Israel.

Refugees in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, carry mattresses provided by IsraAid. (photo credit: ISRAAID)
Refugees in Dohuk, Iraqi Kurdistan, carry mattresses provided by IsraAid.
(photo credit: ISRAAID)
Since the dawn of the century, both man-made and natural disasters have plagued humankind.
Only this past week, a massive 7.8-magnitude earthquake tore through Nepal, killing nearly than 5,000 people, injuring more than 9,000 injured and affecting at least eight million in some way, according to statistics available by press time.
Among the many disaster response teams and the plethora of humanitarian aid sent from countries across the world, IsraAID – The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid – dispatched its own teams of medical specialists and professionals to assist with national and international efforts for those in need.
IsraAID was founded in 2001 to provide long-term disaster relief and support when international crises occur, and has since been active in 28 countries. In addition to IsraAID, Nepal has received an outpouring of support from a variety of organizations and bodies in Israel, including the IDF, Home Front Command, ZAKA, Magen David Adom and El Al.
But what makes IsraAID a little different is that it also provides aid to regions that are traditionally less than friendly to Israel, where inhabitants and officials are not always able to safely express public appreciation for the Israeli NGO’s humanitarian work.
For example, some may be surprised to learn that IsraAID is involved in humanitarian efforts for refugees in northern Iraq.
Seven months ago, Islamic State forced the non-Muslim Yazidi people to flee from villages in northern Iraq to Mount Sinjar, where tens of thousands remained trapped without food, water or shelter, surrounded by jihadists below. At least several thousand were slaughtered and others enslaved – targeted because of their ancient, secret faith, which Muslim jihadists regard as devil worship. An estimated 5,000 Yazidi women and children have been kidnapped and remain captive under Islamic State today, with women forced to endure rape, forced marriage and violence.
The targeted region, known as the Nineveh governorate, is under Islamic State control; this encompasses the province’s capital, Mosul. On April 6, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi promised that his government would work with Kurdish authorities to liberate Nineveh’s northern province from the terrorist movement.
In addition to the Yazidis, other minorities facing Islamic State persecution are Christians and Shabak, Armenian, Kakai and Turkmen peoples. Over 400,000 of these displaced Iraqi minorities have found refuge in Dohuk, Kurdistan (also known as the Regional Kurdish Government, or KRG), according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees statistics.
In all, there are a staggering 2.1 million internally displaced persons in Iraq, uprooted by Islamic State military campaigns since January 2014. Among them, an estimated one million IDPs and refugees have been welcomed by Kurdistan, which already hosts some 220,000 Syrian refugees.
This is the reason why last October, Israeli-born Navonel “Voni” Glick, of Tel Aviv, found himself in Dohuk on an assistance mission with IsraAID.
Glick, who majored in biology at McGill University in Canada, first began his foray into the world of humanitarian aid in Nepal, when he took what was supposed to be a semester sabbatical from school to volunteer with the international Jewish service organization Tevel b’Tzedek, which roughly translates to “World Justice.” He eventually transitioned into an employee, and spent four years as the logistics, administrative and financial director of the organization’s community development program in Nepal.
Glick, who today serves as the program director of IsraAID, traveled with the Israeli NGO’s first mission to northern Iraq in October 2014, helping to distribute 2,000 blankets and mattresses along with powdered milk for the camp’s 1,015 babies under one year of age.
The Dohuk camp itself holds more than 18,000 displaced people today, a number of them Yazidis and Christians who have escaped Islamic State’s horrors.
The IsraAID mission helped the refugees prepare for the chilly winter ahead.
“With the rise of Islamic State, we saw an overwhelming need to help out with emergency items for the incoming refugees,” noted Glick.
“There were hundreds of newly arrived Yazidi families with nothing but clothes on their backs,” recalled Glick, a dual Canadian-Israeli citizen, in an interview with the Magazine.
The IsraAID blankets were a blessing, considering that the KRG and international humanitarian aid organizations had been hard-pressed to supply the new arrivals with basic supplies, as refugees came pouring in – soon making up one-fifth of Kurdistan’s population.
“You always hope that these refugee camps will be something temporary,” explained Glick, who has been to many such camps, including in Africa. “It takes a while for a refugee to realize that the stay in the camp will most likely be for the long haul, not just a few weeks – and it’s a shock. There’s no school for the kids, everything you own has been left behind; you don’t even have a desk and now your first priority is to survive the winter.” “This isn’t a bad dream, it’s reality,” he said starkly. “The Yazidis have been forced to leave their home villages and everything dear to them, and have been suffering horrendously.”
Shehab, a Yazidi from Sinjar, told IsraAID staff during the organization’s second winter relief mission to Dohuk in February of the harsh experiences he and his family have endured.
His five-month-old daughter was born in the refugee camp, and his wife and other children have been traumatized by what they saw and experienced after Islamic State attacked their home.
“When Islamic State entered Sinjar, we fled to the mountains for a week and took refuge in a Yazidi temple; then we found our way to this camp,” Shehab recounted. “Life here is very hard.”
“We use one bathroom between eight families – there are too many people and not enough room or facilities for everyone. There is no school for the younger children.”
“Inside the camp, it’s very cold and we really need warm blankets,” emphasized another Yazidi refugee, Naviah from Sinjar.
As part of IsraAID’s second winter mission to Dohuk, the organization brought 3,000 winter items including more blankets and mattresses to the refugees, living in temperatures that often drop to below freezing in the winter.
Glick, who has supervised humanitarian projects for IsraAID in South Sudan, Haiti, Jordan, South Korea, Japan and other countries since 2011, was surprised by what he discovered in Kurdistan.
“I didn’t feel insecure at all in Kurdistan and was surprised by the relative safety compared to other places. Visiting the country broke stereotypes that I had of the region,” he said.
“There is something wonderful in the way Kurdistan embraces all these different ethnic communities. It is a very ancient and multicultural place, and that was a familiar feeling having come from Israel.”
IMMEDIATELY AFTER his visit to Kurdistan, Glick went on to West Africa. “Friends joked with me at the time, asking what was more risky – Islamic State or Ebola?” Glick recalled that in Dohuk, the IsraAID mission staff couldn’t disclose they were from Israel to everyone. “Sometimes in these camps there are Islamic State supporters, so you have to be careful who you speak to and realize the refugees are still in a very sensitive security situation.”
He sees himself returning to Kurdistan.
“Our work there is very important and we are looking to expand into more long term-programs, such as education projects focusing on children and youth as well as strengthening local aid authorities.”
Indeed, in the coming months, IsraAID is looking to scale up its operation in Kurdistan and help bring some stability to the Iraqi refugees.
“At the end of such a trip, you gain a deeper understanding that we are all part of the Middle East. Geographically and historically speaking, we are closer to Iraq than we are to the US or Europe. It is very natural for Israel to identify with Kurdistan’s situation,” believes Glick, who spent most of his early life in France.
With more than 15 years of experience, IsraAID is Israel’s leading humanitarian nonprofit dedicated to disaster relief and support, having reached over a million people in 25 countries facing humanitarian crises, including Syrian refugees in Jordan as well as Vanuatu, Kenya and Sierra Leone. The organization also offers support programs and training in the fields of psychosocial support, education, health and agriculture, using Israel’s knowhow and proficiency in these fields in a number of developing countries.
“Israel has so much knowledge and expertise in trauma counseling, health services, disaster response and other fields to offer the world and help people who are suffering,” said Glick.
“From Kurdistan to Nepal, Israel has so much to share and contribute.”