I was hustling through the winter winds of New York to get to the grocery store when I received a call that changed my life.
“Hey Jocelyn, I think there might be an opportunity for you to go to Puerto Rico with ISRAEL21c to use your Spanish.”
Puerto Rico continues to suffer from the fallout of Hurricane Maria, and very little support had been offered its people through the government. Other organizations filled in the gaps, and that’s where I came in.
Since August 2018, I have been a Digital Ambassador for ISRAEL21c, a nonprofit news organization that shares the innovations and global impact of Israel in the 21st century. I never expected my dedication to the Spanish language and the state of Israel ever to intersect, until they needed me to help facilitate interviews on the island.
ISRAEL21c wanted to go to Puerto Rico and get a firsthand look at how the Israeli international humanitarian aid agency IsraAID was helping people put their lives back together, and I got to go along to help translate where needed.
A core Israeli value is that everyone and everything is connected; consequently, Israel – in the form of Israeli humanitarian aid organization, IsraAID– was the first country to make it to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, despite the 6,000 mile distance.
IsraAID arrived just a week after the hurricane and has made miracles happen on the island, including freshwater systems and psychosocial support for teens.
On one day of the mission, the ISRAEL21c team drove up winding, lusciously green terrain to the village of El Real, Patillas, where we helped IsraAID organize a community celebration for the inauguration of the water filtration system.
Without electricity for eight months, clean water accessibility had been a serious challenge on the island. IsraAID created a water-filtration device using rocks and soil that does not require electricity to run.
One of the residents I spoke to said that the Israelis were “los ángeles del cielo,” or angels from the sky. He was surprised that Israel was the country providing this assistance and said the IsraAID staff truly became his family during this period of crisis.
One of the IsraAID staff, Hannah Gaventa, worked in Puerto Rico for five months with the organization after Hurricane Maria.
“The first thing we do when we arrive in a country is a needs assessment. Anyone working in any international development organization should be thinking about the partnerships and the communities,” Gaventa said. “It’s not about coming in and thinking that you know better, because you definitely don’t. We do use Israeli expertise in water and social support, but it’s only in collaboration with communities, and it’s specific to that context.”
In addition to water sanitation, the other area that IsraAID chose to focus on in Puerto Rico was social support. The main psychosocial support program can be found at Aspira de Puerto Rico in Carolina, an organization dedicated to keeping students in school. When we came to Aspira, the ISRAEL21c team experienced a similar trust-building activity that IsraAID administers to students.
Some people had a partner to build a “house” by making an upside-down V with their arms, and everyone else stood beneath the “house” arms and were called “bunnies.” Sometimes the bunnies needed to find a new house, and other times, the houses needed to rearrange with another pair of arms. This simulation gave insight into the urgency of movement and unpredictability during a hurricane.
After Puerto Rican teens participated in this seemingly lighthearted activity, they feel that they can be more open when a serious discussion about their feelings follows. I passed by the kids in the cafeteria on their lunch break, and they were full of smiles and ease due to programs like these.
The principal of the Aspira school revealed that because of IsraAID, he is full of esperanza, hope, that the island will be ready for the next hurricane. Tears filled his eyes when I asked what IsraAID meant to him: “IsraAID nos trata como la familia” – “IsraAID treated us like family.”
Being able to communicate with the citizens of Puerto Rico in a way that they could share their raw emotions through their native language brought out tears of my own. A person is a person, and it is clear that IsraAID made that message clear in their eagerness to help the citizens.
It was strange yet natural to be in Puerto Rico representing Israel and ISRAEL21c after Hurricane Maria as an American. Seeing IsraAID’s impact on the island made me realize that Israel is setting a global example. We are all human, and we need to start acting like it.