Since early September, ISRAEL21c has been reporting on the efforts of the Israeli nonprofit aid organization IsraAID to help thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and other refugees from Muslim countries flooding the European continent daily.
It’s an unusual story. Israel and Syria are enemy states, and most of the refugees are flocking from nations that are deeply hostile to Israel. Despite this, IsraAID has diverted a growing amount of its worldwide staff and resources toward providing everything from medical care and baby carriers to psychosocial support for the displaced families. Some of the volunteers are Israeli-Arabs who can speak to the refugees in their native language.
Yotam Polizer, director of global emergencies for IsraAID, tells ISRAEL21c that he forwarded one of these articles, “To the refugees it doesn’t matter that we’re Israeli,” to Yvette Cooper, a British parliamentarian advocating for the UK to take in 10,000 Mideast refugees. Cooper, head of the party’s refugee task force, had approached him after his presentation at the Labour Party’s recent annual conference.
“She was really interested in hearing what was happening in Lesbos. I asked her to come and see for herself, and she asked me to send her material,” relates Polizer. IsraAID now has volunteers dealing with the crisis in Lesbos (Greece) as well as in Jordan, Kurdistan, Serbia and Germany.
“I sent her assistant the ISRAEL21c story and other information, and I think the article was important for her to understand that on top of the terrible tragedy and humanitarian mission, it’s a real opportunity to build bridges between people. We are connecting closely with Syrian and Iraqi refugees. The United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees selected us to take the lead because we have the expertise and the Arabic-speakers.”
“One of the refugees told me that when he saw Israelis on the beach in Lesbos, he realized that his worst enemy just became his biggest supporter.”
Cooper accepted Polizer’s invitation, and her visit was reported in the national British daily The Independent with prominent mentions of IsraAID.
Polizer says the article was especially noteworthy because UK newspapers rarely carry positive coverage of Israel. “The ISRAEL21c story symbolizes the opportunity being created there. I think Yvette and many others were convinced and intrigued by that,” he tells ISRAEL21c via Skype from Japan, one of IsraAID’s many areas of activity.
In Lesbos, IsraAID’s medical team members wear t-shirts sporting the Star of David, and receive about 5,000 new refugees daily. “It’s a shocking experience for them to see Israelis,” Polizer says. “One of the refugees told me that when he saw Israelis on the beach in Lesbos, he realized that his worst enemy just became his biggest supporter.”
Polizer’s team in Lesbos told him last week that on one day there were three children who died on arrival despite efforts to save them, and yet despite this, they pointed out, IsraAID is the only organization providing psychosocial support for their families.
From November 8-24, Polizer will tour 15 American college campuses to talk about IsraAID’s work across the globe.