By Tamar Lazarus
IsraAId is an Israeli nonprofit, non-governmental organization that responds to humanitarian crises, providing life-saving disaster relief and long-term support. Since its inception in 2001, our medical teams, search and rescue units, post trauma experts, community specialists and other professionals have led international responses to natural disasters and civil strife around the world. Our mission is to efficiently support and meet the changing needs of populations as they strive to move from crisis to rehabilitation, and eventually, to sustainable living. As of 2017, we had responded to crises in 41 countries, and currently have on-going programs in 18.
Our responses to global humanitarian challenges utilize Israeli expertise and innovation, such as water and agricultural technologies, specialists in post-trauma counselling and field hospitals building and management.
Our teams reflect Israel‘s diversity and include a mix of Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and Druze professionals, who live and work together side by side; many are Arabic-speakers which has proven to be imperative during the current Middle East refugee crisis.
Our work builds bridges, crosses cultural, ethnic and faith barriers, and changes perspectives on a national and global scale. All IsraAID’s programs are based on forging close working relationships with local affected populations, many who often have no/ limited/antagonistic relations with Israel. Many of the Syrian refugees arriving on the shores of Greece were astonished to be welcomed by Israeli volunteers.
‘Tikkun Olam – repairing the world‘ is an inherent part of the psyche, culture, and values of the Jewish people and the State of Israel. IsraAID’s relief work continually provides a practical and global application of this important value.
The Middle East Refugee Crisis
The Middle East refugee crisis is currently one of the world’s largest humanitarian disasters. Since 2015, we have witnessed an overwhelming influx of refugees and asylum seekers from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistanfleeing violence and atrocities, and seeking passage and refuge in Western Europe. The sheer volume of displaced persons arriving after treacherous journeys has swamped national and local authorities, who face the overwhelming challenge of absorbing and integrating a diverse and traumatized population. IsraAID has responded and deployed specialists to the most affected areas. We currently have teams in Greece and Germany, and in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. For IsraAID, as an Israeli entity, there is a clear and innate imperative to help this generation of refugees.
Since September 2015, we have deployed in total over 100 medical and psycho-social professionals to Lesvos Island and the (now closed) northern border between Greece and Macedonia. Our mobile unit, staffed by many Arabic and Farsi speakers, welcomed literally thousands of refugees as they arrived in overcrowded rubber boats, following precarious journeys across the water. Once safely on shore, the team welcomed them and provided immediate medical assessments and treatment. They also distributed urgent provisions – food, clothing, baby items – and orientated the groups with information and maps explaining where they are, and the next steps in their journeys. Most registered as asylum seekers and continued to Germany.
However, in March 2016, following the closure of the Greek-Macedonian border, the situation has become increasingly static and Greece has become a longer-term transit spot for refugees. Many are now in a challenging state of a limbo; they are unsure of the duration of their stay and when they will be resettled.
Working with local partners, our teams assessed the changing needs and shifted our focus from medical and psychosocial triage on the shore, to longer-term programs that deal with the emotional and psychological impact of the situation. They look at stress reduction, resilience building, community empowerment and positive coping mechanisms.
Following a request from the German Government in 2015, we sent a team of Arabic, Farsi and English-speaking psychosocial specialists to Germany to provide long-term holistic support to refugees awaiting resettlement. Our team operates in 10 refugee shelters in Berlin, Frankfurt and Brandenburg, which are inadequately equipped and insufficiently experienced to deal with the refugees’ breadth and depth of psychosocial issues. We train shelter staff and give direct support to over 9,500 refugees.
As well as dealing with the cultural shock of relocating to Western Europe, many refugees carry deep physical and emotional scars from years of violence and unspeakable atrocities; the most vulnerable are women and unaccompanied minors. They are also facing an ongoing stressful and unpredictable wait to be rehoused.Our approach includes setting up mobile specialist trauma units, support programs for women and girls who experienced sexual gender-based violence, and building the capacity of shelter staff with culturally-sensitive psychosocial training. Our work in Germany focuses on the long-term impact, and supports the most vulnerable individuals as they prepare to transition from temporary shelters to permanent residence – processing their pasts and rebuilding their lives.
Kurdistan Region Iraq
Since August 2014, the Yazidi minority in northern Iraq suffered a genocide at the hands of ISIS, which involved the forced conversion, massacre, expulsion, sexual exploitation, slavery, and torture of the Yazidi people. Since its start, over 5,000 women have been captured and enslaved by ISIS. To date, 3,500 women and children remain incarcerated and over 400,000 Yazidis are displaced and in need of critical assistance. The persecution of the Yazidi people was qualified as a genocide according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, as of March 2015.
The Yazidi survivors now mostly live in internally displaced persons’ camps in the northern province of Dohuk in the Kurdistan Region. Life in these camps is tough and many live in dire conditions. Since January 2014, the Kurdistan Region has absorbed more than 1 million internally displaced persons fleeing unrest in other parts of Iraq in addition to over 200,000 Syrian refugees. So the camps face a huge pressure on resources and a constant lack of necessities. The camps’ refugees suffer unfathomable psychological and physical scars, many of the female victims of gender-based sexual violence remain stigmatized, and there are a limited number of NGOs providing psychosocial support, particularly for women and girls.
Since 2014, IsraAID has worked in the displaced persons camps in the Kurdistan Region building the capacity of local partners. Our specialist team provides training to staff and NGOs to help them manage the acute psychosocial needs of the affected population. We have also distributed essential provisions to thousands of Yazidi families, ranging from hygiene packs, to seasonal clothing and bedding, particularly necessary during the harsh winter months.
For the last few years, IsraAID has been at the forefront of the response to the Middle East refugee crisis. Today, we remain as committed as ever to this ongoing humanitarian crisis. Our experienced, professional teams continue to operate in the most affected sites, providing the emergency and long-term support so urgently needed by this highly vulnerable population.
Tamar Lazarus is the Director of Development of IsraAID.