Meeting the needs in Israel requires all of our humanitarian experience

After the devastating attacks on Oct. 7, IsraAID, the humanitarian aid organization I lead, was faced with a huge decision. After 22 years of using Israeli humanitarian, technical and mental health expertise abroad, we decided for the first time to launch a large-scale response at home.

The first challenge was logistical. With so many organizations on the ground, IsraAID immediately began working to coordinate aid efforts and create technological solutions to ensure that materials, support and people arrived where they were needed most, and to avoid duplicating efforts. Following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, IsraAID established the Tulcea Humanitarian Logistics Hub in Romania, coordinating aid deliveries throughout the south and east of Ukraine and establishing the first secure aid corridor to that part of the country. During the pandemic, we established a national control room in the Kingdom of Eswatini to manage the national COVID-19 vaccine rollout. Those experiences taught us how to create computerized systems, like the “control room” we developed for Kibbutz Be’eri, to track volunteers and donations and coordinate between dozens of different organizations. 

In the first days, we began setting up child and parent spaces in evacuation centers where families could access psychosocial support and psychological first aid in a communal setting. Child-friendly spaces are a hallmark of IsraAID’s programs across the world. They’re an essential tool for creating a protected space, under the guidance of mental health professionals, where children can regain a sense of agency, routine and normalcy as they process trauma. 

In our child-friendly spaces in Colombia, children from the Venezuelan migrant community and the Colombian host community can learn to understand one another and access educational support. In Kenya, Uganda and South Sudan, children who have fled the ongoing civil war in South Sudan access child-friendly spaces for a sense of normalcy, routine and emotional learning activities. During the first days after the invasion of Ukraine, these spaces were a haven for refugee children crossing the border to Moldova, as well as a safe space for parents to plan their next moves.

In Israel, we saw children use the space to process trauma through play and find a positive outlet for their emotions. Parents were able to receive guidance from professionals on how to help their children through this period. Many just needed the assurance from a professional that their children’s reactions were normal responses to trauma, and the chance to see their kids playing and simply being kids again. Above all, the spaces were a constant fixture in the evacuation centers — a solid touch point in a sea of change. 

We also established art therapy spaces, many in the form of open studios that have traveled with communities as they moved between or left evacuation centers. We’ve seen the power of creative arts in places like Japan after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, where we established a mental health program in schools across the country to help children process the trauma and loss they experienced. It was the first such art therapy program in the country and has since been adopted by the government. The experience taught us how important an integrated mental health approach is in a crisis, going beyond traditional frontal therapy and creating spaces for the community to heal together. 

Another important challenge in Israel has been restoring access to education. IsraAID worked with partners and local authorities to establish field schools for evacuated communities in the first months of the war, because we know how much stability and support a school can bring. In Guatemala, where we work in the rural primarily indigenous region of Alta Verapaz, we learned that schools can be holistic centers for the whole community. In Israel, that experience guided us to help establish schools as quickly as possible to create that communal resource and make sure that psychologists were integrated into school staff. 

Above all over the last two decades, we’ve learned that it takes time to rebuild resilience after an emergency. That’s why we commit to communities for as long as we are needed — often many years after the initial crisis. We’re still working in Dominica, the Caribbean nation devastated by Hurricane Maria in 2017, supporting disaster preparedness across the island, and in Vanuatu since 2015’s Cyclone Pam. We’ve been in South Sudan since the country was founded in 2011, amid protracted violence and crisis, and in neighboring Kenya for more than a decade, empowering refugees and delivering drought solutions together with affected communities.

That long-term approach has also been at the core of our work in Israel. Our commitment helped us build trust and deep partnerships with communities — including the kibbutzim of Be’eri, Kissufim, Re’im, Kerem Shalom and others. As many move now out of hotels to longer-term temporary housing, we’re helping them make the transition to their next stage. Our experience has taught us to adapt our response to community needs rather than our own assumptions.

Our work in Israel has been a first for IsraAID in many ways; at the same time, it builds on our past and ongoing global missions. After decades of bringing Israeli expertise to communities in crisis, we found that all the experience we’ve gathered abroad was essential for us to be able to help at home. I have long believed that every disaster holds within it a chance to grow, build our personal and collective resilience and develop knowledge that can help others in the future. In this present crisis, I am grateful for everything I have learned from past emergencies, and hopeful that the difficult lessons we learn now will serve crisis-affected communities in the future.

Yotam Polizer is the CEO of IsraAID.