Disaster relief

Jewish groups distribute aid, assess further assistance in tremor-struck Morocco

Workers on the ground say people need ‘the most basic of the basic’ supplies, namely, shelter, water, food and medicine

The hundreds of thousands of people living in the area around the epicenter of Friday night’s earthquake in central Morocco, even those whose homes are still standing, require “the most basic of the basics” supplies due to the devastation caused by the 6.8-magnitude tremor, Israel Sabag, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s country director, told eJewishPhilanthropy on Monday night.

“You can start with water, with generators, with lights, with first aid, with bandages, with food. It’s the most basic of the basics. And the number [of people] is huge. And the need is huge,” Sabag said, speaking over the phone from Marrakech, where he has been operating since soon after the quake.

More than 2,800 people have been confirmed killed in the deadliest earthquake in Morocco in more than 60 years as rescuers continue to search for survivors trapped beneath the rubble. The tremors caused significant damage to the city of Marrakech, which is home to nearly a million people, particularly in its old city, but the towns in the High Atlas Mountains were by far the hardest hit areas, with some villages being completely flattened. 

A number of Jewish organizations have arrived in Morocco in recent days to assist in the relief effort, with some groups like United Hatzalah focusing on search-and-rescue, while others, like JDC and IsraAid primarily distributing humanitarian aid and assessing the communities’ needs for further help. The Israeli government, which immediately offered assistance, has not yet sent an official aid delegation as Morocco has not approved the request, nor has it accepted aid offers from a number of other foreign countries.

The Moroccan government has been facing criticism from residents of the affected area for what they consider to be a slow and limited response to the disaster.

The JDC has primarily been focused on Marrakech, which is home to a small Jewish population, but Sabag said the organization is in touch with several villages from outside the city that he and his team will begin providing with humanitarian aid. “We are in connection with more than nine points around Marrakech, and I believe it will be more,” he said.

Sabag, who was in Bratislava when the earthquake hit, said he quickly flew back to Morocco and began directing operations in Marrakech. He said the Jewish community, which has more than 100 members, was overwhelmingly spared in the tremors with only one person’s home being completely destroyed and another one damaged. No one was killed or injured, yet he said, “surely they will carry this pain and tragedy for many years.”

Sabag said he and his team — four people in Marrakech and two more in Casablanca — had reached out to all of the members of the Jewish community to assess their needs. “We were some of the first to arrive from outside of the community,” he said. “We have visited everyone that has a need. We went to everyone to help, to meet the needs of each one, to give them a feeling that they are not alone.” Sabag said they were particularly focused on several, elderly, homebound members of the community, who require additional care.

Sabag punctuated this effort with a quote from the Talmud, “Kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh,” meaning, “All of Israel are responsible for one another.”

Sabag said that once the organization responded to the needs of the Jewish community, it began providing assistance to the rest of the city, distributing blankets and hygiene kits through local Muslim nonprofit groups, and preparing to provide medical equipment to local clinics. He said this work was being done with the help and support of the local Jewish community.

Sabag said that while the government was distributing aid in Marrakech, many of those who were most affected are poor and require more assistance. “This is why it’s so important now to help also non-Jewish people, to give them this bare minimum [of help]. For them, it’s everything that they can get,” he said.

Rabbi Levi Banon, the head of the Chabad of Casablanca, along with teams of rabbinical students and volunteers have also been distributing aid in Marrakech in recent days, including warm meals and other essentials.

“In Marrakesh, we get along very well with our Muslim brothers,” Banon told Chabad’s website. “It’s good to be able to help everyone in need, and we are in touch with local authorities to see what more we can do.”

Even as aftershocks have died down, Sabag said the overwhelming feeling in Marrakech is one of fear.

“Unfortunately, the people stay in fear,” he said. “People believe that [an earthquake] will happen again, so people are sleeping at night in the street, especially people whose houses were damaged. They’re afraid that even if [a small earthquake hits], their houses will fall. I keep hearing the Arabic word for fear. This is what people are repeating all the time, this feeling of fear.”

Sabag said that many members of the local Jewish community have fled Marrakech, going to stay with friends or family in another city for this week and for the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday. 

“Whoever could leave, left, and will stay for the holiday in Casablanca. But a big part of them will stay here in Marrakech. This is the city where they were born, where they were raised, and they have this feeling of needing to stay and to be here,” he said.

Ethan Schwartz, who is part of IsraAid’s mission to Morocco, said his team has been traveling around the affected area, distributing aid and working to local partner organizations to assess the immediate and longer-term needs of the communities.

“We are hearing a lot of needs. Of course, shelter is a big one because so many people lost their homes or their homes were damaged,” Schwartz told eJP. “There are even whole villages that are no longer habitable.”

For now, he said, the IsraAid team is focused on distributing blankets, hygiene supplies — “so that people can live and survive with dignity” — as well as household water filters that can be used for up to a few months, until the local infrastructure can be repaired.

As a rule, IsraAid looks to purchase the supplies that it distributes from local vendors — an increasingly standard practice for relief organizations — in order to be more efficient, to help the local economy and to avoid tying up shipping routes. A JDC spokesperson said the organization was doing the same in Marrakech as “local nonprofits can source materials more quickly.”

Schwartz said IsraAid is currently relying on its existing emergency fund, but is also “fundraising actively” in order to pay for its mission to Morocco. “It’s really the way that philanthropists can make a difference in an emergency,” he said.

The organization has already received funding from the American Jewish Committee, which announced on Sunday that it was allocating an initial $100,000 toward relief efforts in Morocco and that AJC was looking to raise additional funds going forward.

A JDC spokesperson said the organization’s relief efforts are primarily being funded by Jewish Federations of North America, which launched an earthquake relief fund on Monday. (Individual federations have launched similar initiatives as well.)

“The tremendous impact of our collective Federation dollars and our long history of emergency response allows us to respond immediately and effectively in the face of catastrophe,” JFNA Board Chair Julie Platt said in a statement. “Guided by our Jewish values, we remain committed to reaching out our hands to people of all faiths and backgrounds who are in distress.”

A JFNA spokesperson said the funds will be directed to JDC and other partner organizations “according to the priorities they have assessed.”