Streams of desperate refugees flooding Europe from the Middle East, Asia and Africa are getting a helping hand from IsraAID, a non-profit, non-governmental organization founded in Israel in 2001 to bring lifesaving disaster relief and long-term support wherever needed.
“We are running a campaign with the goal of inspiring the Jewish people and Israel to help the hundreds of thousands of refugees washed up on the shores of Europe,” says IsraAID Director Shachar Zahavi.
As of Tuesday evening, the NGO had raised enough money to send three professionals, who will land early Wednesday in Athens and then later proceed to Lesbos. Zahavi tells ISRAEL21c that he hopes to send additional volunteers to help manage the European migrant crisis currently overwhelming several countries.
“First we’ll tend to psychosocial needs and then we’ll do an assessment of physical needs, and purchase food or non-food items in the areas where we’re working. We need to buy locally to make sure efforts are coordinated and we don’t bring stuff from Israel that we’d just have to bring back afterward.”
The current refugee crisis in Europe is considered the largest since World War II. Vast numbers of displaced people fleeing war and economic chaos are attempting to reach southern European shores by boat, road and rail, with often fatal results.
According to the United Nations, more than 2,500 migrants and refugees have died or gone missing this year while crossing the Mediterranean Sea. The most recent tragedy occurred this week in Turkey, when the bodies of Syrian refugees Aylan Kurdi, 3, and his brother Galip, 5, washed ashore after their overcrowded dinghy capsized on its way to Greece. Their mother also perished.
The beginning of a tsunami
“What’s happening in Europe right now is the beginning of a tsunami,” said Professor Arnon Soffer, head of the Chaiklin Chair in Geostrategy at the University of Haifa, who claims that the Middle East is deteriorating as population growth, water scarcity and climate change take their toll. “It is not a short affair that will pass quickly – we are witnessing the beginning of a mass migration, such as the incursions of the peoples of the sea or the Huns.”
Though some nations, most notably Germany, have been taking in tens of thousands of refugees, other countries are reluctant to admit them, and as a result there have been demonstrations and violent incidents.
“Last year we did a program with the Bulgarian Red Cross dealing with Syrian refugees who crossed over their border,” Zahavi says.
“Now the situation is getting 10 times worse, if not more, and we believe that our experience in places such as Iraq, Jordan and North Africa gives us an advantage in helping them deal with this crisis. We understand the refugee mentality and that allows us to communicate how to reduce the level of violence on the part of the refugees on the one hand, and on the other to help the authorities in Italy, Bulgaria and Greece cope better with absorbing the refugees.”
Zahavi says IsraAID intends to work in partnership with three types of agencies on the ground in each country: the local NGO sector, local Red Cross and both national and regional government officials.
Greece and Italy first
“Our main focal point right now is Greece and Italy. We’re also looking secondarily at Bulgaria, where the crisis is growing again, and at Hungary, a stopover for many refugees trying to reach Germany,” says Zahavi.
As far as he knows, no other Israeli NGO is currently operating in Europe to help the migrants. However, Zahavi is in touch with the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s European department in an effort to enlist the help of Israeli ambassadors to European countries in reaching out to Jewish communities for donations.
“We’d like to motivate European Jews to take part in a Jewish-Israeli humanitarian aid mission,” he says. “We’re talking about Yazidis, Christians, Muslims, Africans — a massive amount of people crossing the borders seeking refuge from countries in a state of war.
“I think Jews have a responsibility, after the Holocaust in Europe only 70 years ago, to get involved and actually become leaders in this. We know, more than others, what happened when countries wouldn’t accept Jewish refugees of atrocities,” says Zahavi, who has been involved in disaster relief for more than 25 years.
Contributions can be given online at IsraAID’s website. Tax receipts are available for donors from the US and UK.