Volunteers from IsraAID: The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid spent the Jewish New Year in dramatic rescue and aid operations on behalf of refugees pouring into Europe from war-torn countries including Syria.

IsraAID Director Shachar Zahavi tells ISRAEL21c that on Sunday, September 13, volunteers from his non-profit NGO sprang into action when they saw a boatful of refugees nearing the Greek shore suddenly flip over as its engine exploded.

“Some of the women, children and babies didn’t know how to swim and our staff immediately jumped into the water to help them, preventing them from drowning,” says Zahavi. “After bringing everyone onto the shore safely, our medical team treated some of the sick and injured while our logistic team distributed food and water to the rest.”

On that same day – the eve of Rosh Hashana — another boatload of refugees capsized in high winds as it neared a Greek island. At least 34 people drowned, including 15 babies and children. In the wake of this tragedy, IsraAID received a request from the United Nations to provide the survivors with psycho-social treatment in a refugee camp set up on the island of Rhodes.

IsraAID distributing aid to refugees arriving in Lesbos. Photo via Facebook
IsraAID distributing aid to refugees arriving in Lesbos. Photo via Facebook

In the space of one week since last Wednesday (September 9), IsraAID has sent about 10 volunteers in total, including some Arabic-speakers. Five more will depart from Israel in the coming days, headed for Rhodes. The other IsraAID volunteers will be split between Greece and the Serbian border with Hungary, where Hungarian officials have declared a state of emergency.

On September 14, the first day of Rosh Hashana, IsraAID staff joined UN personnel in accompanying thousands of refugees over the Hungarian border, walking on old World War II train tracks in the rain. They distributed blankets and food where needed, and escorted them to waiting buses and trains.

“Our staff is overwhelmed but we cannot stop now, especially as more refugees are on their way,” says Zahavi.

Baby carriers

Also on Rosh Hashana, IsraAID volunteers on the Serbian-Hungarian border distributed dozens of baby carriers and baby slings donated by individuals across Israel in response to a Facebook appeal spearheaded by IsraAID, Zahavi adds.

They showed refugee parents how these devices can help them transport their little ones more securely, with hands free to hold other items.

An IsraAID volunteer showing a refugee on the Serbian-Hungarian border how to strap on a baby carrier donated from Israel. Photo via Facebook
IsraAID volunteer Rachel Lasry Zahavi showing a refugee on the Serbian-Hungarian border how to strap on a baby carrier donated from Israel. Photo via Facebook

In addition to providing the baby carriers and psychosocial and medical assistance in Greece, IsraAID is distributing food, water, blankets and “Journey of Hope” relief kits to refugees in Greece and Serbia. The kits contain personal-hygiene items, socks, warm clothes and maps “so the refugees know where to go,” says Zahavi.

Representatives of the organization are in talks with German partners “to see how we can build a wider and more in-depth psychosocial intervention in the facilities where the new arrivals are being housed,” says the IsraAID director.

Zahavi hopes to be able to do more, pending additional funds. “We’ve gotten some money from European Jewish foundations and from non-Jewish international aid agencies, and we’re appealing to the Jewish federations of North America now that Rosh Hashana is over,” he says.

An IsraAID volunteer providing first aid in Greece. Photo via Facebook
An IsraAID volunteer providing first aid in Greece. Photo via Facebook

“Personally, I can’t stop thinking that the ones we saved will join the masses of refugees walking hundreds of kilometers to flee violence and conflict, all with barely the clothes on their backs. I hope more people will join us in reaching out in a helping hand.”

The current refugee crisis is widely considered the largest since World War II. Some 430,000 migrants and asylum seekers from the Middle East, Africa and Asia have crossed the Mediterranean to Europe so far in 2015, and more than 2,748 have died or going missing along the way.

IsraAID volunteers distributed water and fruit in a refugee camp. Photo via Facebook
IsraAID volunteers distributed water and fruit in a refugee camp. Photo via Facebook

For more information, click here.