Spreading the wings of relief around the world

There is a true face of Israel. And it’s not a face that most people see every day. It’s the face of Israeli volunteers traveling to Sri Lanka and India to help victims of 2004′s tsunami, the face of Ben-Gurion …

There is a true face of Israel. And it’s not a face that most people see every day.

It’s the face of Israeli volunteers traveling to Sri Lanka and India to help victims of 2004′s tsunami, the face of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Prof. Rafi Bar-El, who’s working with impoverished communities in Brazil to break their increasing cycle of poverty, and the faces of Israeli doctors from Sheba Medical Center who regularly fly to Peru to operate on children suffering from cleft lip/ palate disorder.

When the tsunami devastated South Asia, almost immediately, dozens of Israeli and Jewish groups stood at the forefront of the relief efforts and quickly organized and implemented a plan bringing 60 tons of aid and dozens of trauma and rehabilitation experts to the regions most severely hit.

Although the tsunami is long gone from the headlines, there Israelis remain on the ground today, helping the people of Sri Lanka and India who lost their family, friends and life possessions within a tragic instant. Knowing that Israelis are still on the ground and that the help is still being given is tremendously meaningful to the locals who receive it. Many of the officials and communities within the country speak appreciatively of Israel’s assistance programs, especially in the southern coastal districts, and how they benefited from the holistic, community and capacity building approach so many Israeli professionals, students and volunteers had to offer.

Such efforts are nothing new. For decades Israel has been at the forefront of providing technical assistance to developing countries.

Next year marks half a century since Golda Meir first visited the newly independent states of Africa and subsequently, established the state of Israel’s foreign aid arm, called MASHAV (the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ Center for International Cooperation). Since then, MASHAV has trained more than 200,000 people from 130 countries in a variety of fields, including agriculture, public health and medical programs, community development, integrated rural regional development and other areas.

Israelis also have special expertise in emergency and disaster response, and have played a significant role in responding to some of the largest disasters over that have emerged over last five years. Besides the tsunami, where Israel was one of the only nations who invested millions of dollars not only in equipment and material goods but also in human resources and skills development, Israelis also arrived in the Gulf region of the United States region to assist evacuees of Hurricane Katrina., proactively finding a niche for themselves, among the bureaucratic nightmare that barred aid from reaching many people.

Israeli rescue units coordinated by the IDF’s Home Front Command have readily offered their services in search and rescue missions around the world. Whether traveling to Kenya at the beginning of this year to search for survivors in the rubble of a collapsed building or sending a team to India in 2001 in the aftermath of a massive earthquake, Israelis have stood out in their willingness to volunteer for dangerous humanitarian work.

But beyond government and military assistance, the big change in the last five years has been the rise of Israeli individuals who have founded civilian aid groups that are focused on helping nations around the world. Young and idealistic Israeli individuals have brought together their families, friends and others have created a number of organizations with the goal of reaching out to less fortunate communities worldwide. These groups have become the backbone of current foreign aid initiatives, whether it’s disaster relief campaigns or educational initiatives against HIV/AIDS and global poverty.

With the emergence of various aid organizations came the need for coordination, and against this backdrop, IsraAID: The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid was established over four years ago.

IsraAID emerged as an umbrella organization of a wide variety of Israel-based organizations and agencies working to address global humanitarian issues. Among the members and partners are: Save a Child’s Heart, Yad Sarah, UJC, The Jewish Federation of Toronto, Jewish Aid Australia, Tzedek, Jerusalem AIDS Project, FIRST, NISPED, Israeli Flying Aid, Ve’ahavta, Ma’Afrika Tikkun, Israeli branch of B’nai Brith International, The American Jewish Committee and Israel Friends of Tibetan People.

The open forum allows all those interested to exchange ideas, plan together and coordinate joint activities, especially in emergency situations, and leverage the vast talents of the members in fundraising and advocacy campaigns. The forum also attempts to share the successes of the groups with other Israelis as well as Jewish communities worldwide as well as the general public. As a united group, IsraAID has been able to showcase ‘another side of Israel’ around the world, one that the general media often omits and fails to capture.

There is no doubt that over the last five years, Israel and Israelis have embraced the notion of sharing their skills and knowledge with others, in the spirit of ‘Tikkun Olam’ the Jewish value of repairing the world. One could even say it has become trendy – many young Israelis who finished their army service deciding that the best way to see the world is not merely backpacking to exotic destinations, but by finding a way to volunteer and help a local community in one of the far and forgotten corners of the world. More than a few villages in India, Malawi, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Uganda, Vietnam and Central America have hosted young, compassionate Israeli volunteers for months at a time.

They make up a small part of the activities of Israeli aid groups around the world offering their assistance in various ways from providing HIV/AIDS education all over Africa to establishing micro finance programs in Asia to medical and relief missions in China and other parts of the world. Israeli companies, many of whom have become multinational, began to understand the importance of giving not only to local charities within Israel but also to various international causes, becoming true world citizens.

From the beautiful smiles of children from Zanzibar who have undergone life saving heart operations with the Save a Child’s Heart program, confident youth leaders in Sri Lanka trained to help children deal with loss and trauma after the tsunami, and mothers and fathers who participated in programs of the Negev Institute for Strategies of Peace and Development (NISPED) which equipped them with new skills and livelihoods, increasingly the true face of Israel is reflected in the grateful eyes of tens of thousands of people around the world.