Israelis to the rescue all over the world

IsraAID’s global disaster response realizes the dream of the Jewish state being a light unto the nations.

IsraAID Greeting Syrian refugees on a Greek beach. (photo credit: MICKEY NOAM-ALON / ISRAAID)
IsraAID Greeting Syrian refugees on a Greek beach.
(photo credit: MICKEY NOAM-ALON / ISRAAID)
Buried deep within the lower reaches of Beit Hatfutsot–Museum of the Jewish People in Tel Aviv, near the end of a maze of basement corridors, are the small but very busy offices of an extraordinary Israeli organization that you have most likely never heard of. The offices are cramped and bare-boned, with minimal furniture and virtually no decorations. When you visit these offices – if you can find them in the basement’s winding labyrinth – you will conclude that this organization is spending its money elsewhere, for other things.
Indeed, it is. The organization is IsraAID, and since 2001 it has been responding to disasters like hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis, disease epidemics and refugee crises around the world – as well as staying after the disasters to provide long-term aid projects that save people’s lives. In the past several weeks, for example, IsraAID has sent teams of staff and volunteers to help victims of Hurricane Harvey in Houston; Hurricane Irma in Florida, Puerto Rico, and the Commonwealth of Dominica; an earthquake in Mexico, a mudslide in Sierra Leone, and a typhoon in Nepal, all the while conducting long-term social development projects in 14 countries in Africa, Asia, Central America, the Pacific and the Caribbean.
The fact that this, other Israeli non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and even the IDF are doing this kind of work should come as no surprise. Israel was once one of the world’s major providers of international aid and assistance. Says Navonel “Voni” Glick, 30-year-old co-CEO of IsraAID, “This was a product of David Ben-Gurion and Golda Meir’s dream of Israel being a light unto the nations. That it should be sharing. Thousands of Israeli professionals went throughout the world. Even before we had the agriculture and the hi-tech, there was a lot of work in urban and community development.
“Then in 1973 came the Arab oil embargo, and many countries that had received so much aid and assistance from Israel had to choose between Israel and oil. For reasons we can perhaps understand, they chose oil. The government aid program never recovered. It has never been the same since. It dwindled down to what it is today, which is MASHAV [the Hebrew acronym for Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation], which brings people here for training and does some training out of the country.”
Glick, with IsraAID for six years and in the development assistance field for 10, says he became aware of Israel’s history as an aid provider while working in Nepal.
“I was working on a project to open a daycare center for the children of what we politely call ‘working women.’ I was 20 at the time, and I had no idea what I was doing. What did I know about children? So I went to find the Nepalese woman who knew the most about the subject, and I when I went to meet her with notebook in hand, hoping to understand the logistics, she looked at me and asked where I was from. I said ‘Israel,’ and she said, ‘Oh, Israel!’ It turned out that everything that she knew, everything she had learned about early childhood development came from Israel. We’ve had this in many places, where the highest level technocrats in the county today remain those who were trained in Israel back during those days. That’s one of the motivating things behind our work today, that you can make strong bonds through professional capacity building with the right touch of humanity.”
So IsraAID was founded in 2001 to fill some of the vacuum left at the end of the glory days of Israeli aid projects. In its first few years, the organization was involved almost exclusively with direct, immediate disaster response. Then came the South Asian tsunami in 2005. An IsraAID rapid response team when to Sri Lanka. The group soon realized that after the disaster mission is over and all the humanitarian aid groups have departed, and the media have moved on to the next big thing, the country is still in crisis.
Says Glick, “That’s the time when often the need is greatest, because you’re left with very vulnerable communities. People talk about the earthquake in Nepal, but they don’t speak so much about the winter after that, which was probably one of the worst ones that Nepal had ever seen. Countless people suffered and died because of the cold and lack of housing, but the news people had moved on to bigger and better things. So IsraAID decided to be one of the organizations that would stay. And it was then, and later in Haiti, that we transitioned to what we are now. After the emergency response, we stay and move toward long-term planning aimed at strengthening the capacity of governments and community organizations in a wide range of areas.”
At present, IsraAID has ongoing projects in Haiti, where they were among the first responders after the earthquake in 2010. Their projects now involve education, economic development, mental health and psychological-social support, medical support, relief aid, agriculture development, community development and combating gender-based violence. In Japan, IsraAID provides the earthquake-devastated Tohoku region with post-trauma capacity building, psycho-social services and professional skills training for youth.
In 2011, the organization responded to Kenya’s worst drought in 60 years by distributing food and emergency relief items to tens of thousands of refugees, and is now providing intensive and continuous trauma training and infrastructure support. IsraAID arrived in Liberia in June, 2015, to support epidemic- stricken communities during the Ebola outbreak. Current programs in that country aim to improve and increase access to the local health care system and to prevent violence against children and women.
On April 25, 2015, a 7.9 magnitude earthquake devastated Nepal, followed by another 7.3 magnitude earthquake just two weeks later. IsraAID deployed an emergency relief team to Nepal days after the first earthquake, providing search and rescue, medical, mental health and psycho-social services. IsraAID currently has a variety of projects in Nepal focusing on specific community needs, especially in the areas of agriculture, fisheries, housing and water sanitation.
IsraAID’s first emergency team left Israel within 48 hours of a devastating typhoon in the Philippines on November 8, 2013 that killed more than 6,000 people and injured over 27,000 others while displacing approximately four million people. The organization continues to provide a variety of agriculture and livelihood projects, as well as special programs addressing problems like human trafficking. IsraAID programs in South Sudan focus heavily on working with local government and partner organizations to prevent gender-based violence and child abuse, while water sanitation technology is a primary goal in Uganda.
Surprisingly, IsraAID works in Jordan to meet the humanitarian needs of Syrian refugees, and even more surprisingly in Iraq, where the organization works more or less ‘under cover,’ with partner organizations to ease the plight of refugees in the northern region of Kurdistan.
One very obvious question, perhaps, is how people in these various countries react to the presence of a humanitarian assistance team from Israel.
“Aside from some of the places where they remember us positively from our old aid days, it’s actually for the most part very good for different reasons,” says Glick.
“For example, we’re not a colonial power. We’re a small country, and they don’t view IsraAID as one of these big organizations representing one of the countries that, so to speak, pillaged and wrecked their country in the past. We come from another small country that they in many ways look up to, from a technological and development point of view. And they also ask, ‘You have so much going on at home, you have so many troubles, and yet you’re coming to help us.’ We get this a lot particularly in the US. And then there are places where they identify us with Biblical Israel. But really, I don’t think we have ever had a negative reaction.”
In addition to aiding Syrian refugees in Jordan, IsraAID teams, composed largely of Israeli Arabs, assist them in Germany and Greece as well.
“For the Syrian refugees it must be a surreal experience,” says Glick. “We joke that when they arrive on the beaches of Greece they probably think they took the wrong boat and ended up in Haifa. Imagine that you’ve been through hell for years. You’ve put your life in the hands of smugglers. These smugglers put you in a rubber boat. You somehow make it to Greece. You’re terrified. And the first person that picks you out of the boat is wearing a T shirt with the Israeli flag that says ‘IsraAID.’ We’ve had some incredible stories. We’re proud to have been part of the delivery of seven babies on the beaches there. We all feel proud of the work we do.”
Who funds the work they do? Here is another surprise. While Jewish Federations in the US and Canada previously contributed the lion’s share of money to support their activities, IsraAID now receives roughly 40% of its funding globally from the UN. Yes, while our country remains the object of a seemingly endless barrage of condemnations and hostile UN resolutions, IsraAID has become the beneficiary of financial support from UNICEF (United Nations Children’s Fund), WHO (World Health Organization), UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund), IOM (International Organization for Migration) as well as CHF International (Cooperative Housing Foundation) and the World Bank.
Asked how IsraAID recruits its people, Glick explains, “It depends on two profiles. The first are the project managers who are designing the programs, forging links with government and partner organizations, creating the proper evaluation mechanisms, and generally being the glue that holds the whole thing together. These are the country directors. One country director per country, based in that country. They stay in place for at least one year, more typically for two, and are paid staff – although the pay isn’t great. The country directors are also responsible for recruiting, training and supervising local national staff to ensure the project’s sustainability in the future. There are, for example some 60 Nepalese working for IsraAID in Nepal.
The second profile are the volunteers. We have a roster of now 1,409 people who are professionals from different backgrounds. Whenever we have a need during the emergency period of our work for perhaps a water engineer, or a psychotherapist, or a doctor, or whatever, we reach out to our roster to find the people we need. Or, depending upon how frantic it gets, we reach out to anyone we can. These people are vetted and, more and more, brought into the office for intense pre-service training.”
In really frantic situations, IsraAID has training videos and training materials that the hurriedly recruited response- team members are expected to watch and read on the airplane while flying to the disaster. The volunteers work on a short-term basis, with all of their expenses paid. IsraAID currently has 275 staff around the world – mostly locally hired – and an equal number of volunteers.
Thus far, no Israeli staff or volunteers have died while working overseas, but many suffer from the usual range of tropical illnesses. A case in point is Ophelie Namiech, back in Israel for the past six months after serving as IsraAID’s South Sudan country director for almost six years. She laughs and responds to my greeting of “Hello, how are you?” by replying, “Well, I just came back this morning from the hospital. I returned here with all kinds of parasites.”
Now 33 years old, Namiech recalls, “I made aliya to Israel and very soon afterwards went to work for IsraAID. I then moved to South Sudan a few months after the country’s independence. I went there so soon after arriving in Israel that I felt like I’d made aliya to South Sudan. I was supposed to stay for four days and ended up staying for 5½ years. I was in charge of opening the office there. I went for an initial assessment. Very soon we developed a very strong partnership with the Ministry of Gender and Social Welfare, who asked us to stay and work on a five-year strategy with them to develop social services in the new country. Our main focus was on gender-based violence – rape, domestic violence, early forced marriage and emotional and economic violence targeting women and girls. Also child protection, children associated with armed conflict, better known as child soldiers. Also public health and education. We tried to develop a holistic approach to social services, not just the social aspects but also medical support.
“We have more than 50 national staff in South Sudan, with us now for five years. We have one American guy, one Israeli woman, and the rest is national staff, operating in more than half of the country, including the most marginal, inaccessible areas still in conflict. We have a network of community people and local officials that allow us to operate in even these areas.”
Asked what her life was like for nearly six years in this war-ravaged country, Nameach refers once again to the “all kinds of parasites” with which she is afflicted, and then turns serious.
“Listen, jokes aside, from a security perspective it was extremely challenging, especially as a woman. Especially after 2015, when things started to get really bad. There was an escalation of rape, not only of local people but international workers as well. On July 11 last year there was an army raid on a hotel where foreign NGO workers were staying. There were rapes and killings. But I really fell in love with the place. It has remained the place of my heart. It was extremely difficult to leave. I thought I’d never be able to, but I got really sick and had to come back. But it was wonderful. The people are very warm toward Israel, and it was wonderful watching a new country being born.”
Mickey Noam-Alon began work at IsraAID in 2010. In the seven years since then, he has worked with the organization in Haiti, Japan, South Sudan, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Greece, Serbia, the US, Vanuatu, and Uganda, first as a photographer, then involved with mission logistics, and lately as head of missions. Asked why, he says, “I was always fascinated by aid work. And I was interested to see what kind of change I could bring as a photographer, how I could use photography to make a positive impact. Since joining IsraAID I gained new insight into the complexity of this work. Doing good is much more complicated than you would initially think.
“What interests me most is that when you’re actually in the field, on the ground, meeting the people. It’s an enormous experience. It’s true that it’s a very sad and sometimes horrible situation that you’re coming into, but you’re coming with something that will help and you see how much strength people in these situations have. Like when I was in Haiti, less than a week after the earthquake, markets were already up and running in the displaced persons camps, and life was going on. When I was with the Syrian refugees in Serbia, I could see people carrying their children all the way from Syria, coming on buses and in boats. You can only imagine as a young parent, like me, what it is to do something like this. You become amazed at what humankind can do, even in these horrible situations. You just want to be there and do the best you can.”
A quick look around the organization’s crowded office reveals a sense of purpose, a feeling of frenetic urgency, as well as unequivocal commitment. Everyone is young, most in their 20s, a few of the “senior” people in their early 30s. If any one theme seems to drive each of these young people, it is Noam-Alon’s final statement to me at the conclusion of our interview: “I really believe in what we do.”
For further information about IsraAID, its various activities around the world, and how to contribute either to the organization or to specific programs, visit or IsraAID’s page on Facebook.