Israeli relief forum coordinates worldwide disaster aid

Maya and Miri, two members of an Israeli humanitarian aid mission, celebrate at an IDF Field Hospital in India in 2001 with Dr. Sonia Fox and the baby they delivered. (Photo: Zvika Golan, IDF Spokesperson)A humanitarian forum called IsraAID is …

Maya and Miri, two members of an Israeli humanitarian aid mission, celebrate at an IDF Field Hospital in India in 2001 with Dr. Sonia Fox and the baby they delivered. (Photo: Zvika Golan, IDF Spokesperson)A humanitarian forum called IsraAID is helping to coordinate Israeli efforts in providing aid to disaster areas across the globe.

Last week representatives of a dozen Israeli and Jewish humanitarian organizations gathered at Kibbutz Yakum north of Tel Aviv, under the IsraAid umbrella, to look at ways of pooling their respective resources in the most efficient manner, for the benefit of needy people the world over.

Israel is at the forefront of worldwide efforts in providing disaster assistance whenever tragedies strike. The Israeli Army’s Home Front Command Search and Rescue unit has participated in dozens of rescue missions in recent years including sending teams to:

** Nairobi, Kenya in 1998, following a terrorist bombing of the US Embassy;

** Kosovo, April 1999, in the aftermath of the conflict;

** Turkey, August 1999, following an earthquake;

** Greece, September 1999, following an earthquake;

** Turkey, November 1999, following an earthquake;

** India, Feburary 2001, following an earthquake.

The guiding light behind the IsraAid initiative is Shahar Zahavi. A veteran relief worker at the sites of several global disasters, Zahavi certainly has the credentials to try to keep Israel’s helping hands steady.

“I worked in a refugee camp on the Uganda-Rwanda border in 1994, I was a relief worker after Hurricane Mitch struck [in Central America] in 1998 and I went to India after the 2000 earthquake there, “helping with logistics and working behind the scenes.” he said.

Zahavi says Israeli humanitarian organizations have been on alert to help around the world for some time.

“When there was the big earthquake in Turkey, or there was any other kind of disaster – like in Kosovo – there was always a large number of organizations from here who wanted to do something to help,” he said.

Unfortunately, good intentions on their own simply aren’t enough. Zahavi has discovered.

“What usually happened was that each organization tried to do something, and you ended up with a mess. You’d find groups working in a particularly area only to discover, a couple of weeks later, that others were already active in the same field.”

Realizing something needed to be done, both to avert wastage of precious resources and to disseminate the organizations’ messages to the outside world, Zahavi conceived the IsraAID forum.

“The forum has three basic premises,” he explained. “The most important one is coordination between the various groups and pooling their resources to ensure those in need benefit from them. The second factor is to let the world know that Israelis are also willing to contribute to the world. Our material resources may be limited but we have a huge amount of expertise – in agriculture, rescue operations,
and emergency medical assistance. There really is very little knowledge in the world about what we do. We also want to get our message across in the countries we help. In my experience, people have responded well to us because they view our work as people helping other people, without the
political element.”

One of the out-of-towners at last week’s gathering was Rachel Lasry of the Toronto-based Ve’ahavta non-profit organization whose stated aim is “to play a role in repairing the world, through the Canadian Jewish community and partnerships with other NGOs and worldwide organizations.”

Lasry says, while she had been aware of the work of other Jewish humanitarian groups around the world, it was only last year that she learned of the help extended by groups based in Israel.

“I had no idea the extent to which Israel itself was doing such amazing work. I was blown away by Israel’s response to Turkey [after the earthquake there]. The first IsraAID forum I attended discussed ways in which the Israeli groups could work together better on future aid projects. You hear the Kibbutz Movement [Humanitarian Fund] movement say ‘We didn¹t have enough blankets to give out’, and then you hear another organizations saying it didn’t know where to send its blankets. It was a real eye opener for me to see how things have come together at the forum.”

Some of the organizations within the IsraAID fold also provide help closer to home. Save A Childs Heart (SACH), for example, provides urgent medical help to children from the Palestinian Authority (PA).

“In fact, one quarter of all the children we help come from the PA,” explains SACH director Zehava Porat, adding that her organization also trains doctors from all over the world in advanced methods of cardiac surgical techniques. “We also send send pediatric cardiologists and pediatricians to Africa to screen children there before bringing them to Israel to perform heart surgery.”

Other members of the IsraAID forum include the National Volunteer Council, and Bnai Brith whose director general, Alan Schneider, says he is delighted with the way the forum is working.

“We wanted to let people know we work on an international scale. It is so important to get that message out there.”

IsraAID has recently initiated a Jewish humanitarian newsletter called Tikun Olam which enables Jewish aid organizations from different parts of the globe that wish to find new ways to improve their working relationships. The newsletter is available at the Tikkun Olam website: http://www.tikkunnews.org