Back in 2018, Joe Serkin from Modi’in was frazzled after months spent juggling his job as an independent consultant and caring for his three children, while his wife Yonit, managing director for Mass Challenge, traveled for work. She suggested he take a vacation and recharge his batteries.
“I’m not a ‘sit on the beach by myself’ type of person,” Serkin said in a telephone interview. “I had heard about IsraAid, and I figured this would be an excellent way to be busy and engaged. I hoped it would be really exciting and fun, and it was.” He was referring to IsraAid, a Tel Aviv-based NGO that provides global relief in disaster situations around the globe. Since its inception in 2001, it has worked in more than 50 countries around the world, including some that have no diplomatic relations with Israel. It focuses on both the immediate and long-term needs of populations affected by humanitarian disasters.
Serkin spent three weeks volunteering in North Carolina in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence. He spent his days mucking out houses that had been damaged by the hurricane and preparing them for the contractors who would come and rebuild.
“Mucking out houses is very expensive if you do it privately,” he said. “So we did it for people who were uninsured or very poor.”
It was tough physical labor, he said, but he came back energized.
“I got more out of it than I had expected because I had an incredible experience, worked with amazing people and came back very excited.”
So excited that in January of this year, just before the coronavirus pandemic began, he volunteered again with IsraAid, traveling to the Bahamas a few months after Hurricane Dorian ripped through the islands, killing at least 70 and doing more than $3.4 billion in damage.
This time he was in charge of logistics, which was “getting everybody what they needed when they needed it.” It was after the emergency phase, which IsraAid considers the first three months after a disaster, and during the rehabilitation and recovery phase, which can continue for years. Volunteers were working with teachers to help recognize signs of trauma in children.
Serkin is one of 6,000 volunteers, including doctors, nurses and engineers that IsraAid calls on to help in its mission to support people around the world affected by humanitarian crises. There is also a staff of 250, including many local staff.
One of these local staff is Mahmoud, a Syrian who works with Syrian refugees at the Sindos Community Center in Greece, which is run by IsraAid. He asked not to use his real name, fearing possible retaliation from the Syrian government for working with an Israeli-based organization.
“I am really happy to work with IsraAid helping, supporting and teaching people English,” Mahmoud said in an interview. “It is a great honor to work in the humanitarian field.”
Mahmoud studied English literature in Syria and began teaching in several schools. He was an employee of the Syrian government, and when the Syrian civil war started was drafted into the Syrian army.
“I refused to do the national service because I refused to be involved in any military actions against the Syrian people and would not participate in destroying Syrian cities,” he said. “I was forced to leave my family, my job and my country. I felt that my national duty and Syria were bigger than the regime and the army.” Mahmoud fled to Turkey, and eventually made his way to Greece and the job at the Sindos Community Center, which IsraAid established in 2018 in partnership with the Swiss organization Be A Robin. It serves a community of around 600 Syrian refugees, with between 70 and 100 coming to the center every day before the pandemic for language classes, skills training, psychosocial support and cultural events.
IsraAid CEO Yotam Polizer says IsraAid is different from other aid organizations that focus primarily on relief in the immediate aftermath of a humanitarian disaster.
“I call it the ‘Aid Festival’ – for the first month everyone is there,” Polizer said in an interview in his office in Tel Aviv. “Then, after a month, 90% of the people leave and go on to the next crisis, and that’s when the real work starts.” Polizer himself spent three years working in Nepal for the organization Tevel B’tzedek, before becoming one of the first employees of IsraAid. His first big crisis was in the aftermath of the tsunami in Japan in 2011, which killed 25,000 people and left half a million people homeless.
He arrived just a few days after the tsunami, and Japan, the third-largest economy in the world, offered unique challenges for humanitarian organizations.
“The problem was that the Japanese were very proud and accepting outside support was difficult for them,” he said. “I got in touch with one kindergarten where eight children had died and they didn’t have any kind of emotional support for the kids, the teachers or the parents.” He said they brought in an art therapist and the teachers were shocked at how willing the kids were to express themselves. From that first program, it expanded to 10 cities, and more than 3,000 teachers and social workers have been trained in dealing with trauma.
IsraAid also operates in countries that have no diplomatic relations with Israel, including those in the Arab world. They even brought a group of Yazidi women from Iraq to Israel a few years ago.
Polizer says his first priority is to both give humanitarian aid and train locals to help their country.
“We don’t only give them fish or teach them how to fish, but we help them build hundreds of fishponds,” he said in a takeoff of the famous saying about why teaching someone to fish is more effective than giving him fish to eat.
And while the goal is humanitarian aid, a side benefit is giving good publicity to Israel.
“We intentionally call ourselves IsraAid,” Polizer said. “The goal is to provide aid but the side benefit is building bridges.”