‘We pulled out 21 bod­ies. The 22nd per­son was alive’

IsraAID CEO Yotam Polizer ex­plains how his NGO made a name for it­self of­fer­ing a unique blend of cri­sis re­sponses, from re­silience train­ing to search-and-res­cue

The Jewish Chronicle - - NEWS - BY DANIEL SUGARMAN

WHEN HIS army ser­vice fin­ished a decade ago, Yotam Polizer did what thou­sands of other Is­raelis do — he went to In­dia, “fol­lowed the Hum­mus Trail and found my­self in Nepal”.

After com­plet­ing what was sup­posed to be a 21-day trek in just nine days (per­haps un­wisely, he had opted to hike it with a friend who had re­cently com­pleted his ser­vice in Is­rael’s elite Say­eret Matkal unit), he found him­self in the fa­mous Chabad House in Kath­mandu, site of the world’s largest Pe­sach Seder.

“I saw a small ad for an or­gan­i­sa­tion which had been es­tab­lished to bring to­gether Is­raeli Jewish back­pack­ers to do vol­un­teer work,” he said.

“I thought ‘that sounds cool, I’ll do it for two hours and then con­tinue’.

“I ended up stay­ing there for three and a half years… I learned Nepalese, which proved to be very use­ful.”

Just how use­ful would be­come clear a few years later, when Mr Polizer, now co-CEO of IsraAID, Is­rael’s largest hu­man­i­tar­ian NGO, re­turned to Nepal after a dev­as­tat­ing earth­quake, and linked up with a search and res­cue team.

“Partly be­cause of my lan­guage skills, but also be­cause of a lot of luck, we were able to find the last sur­vivor of the earth­quake, a lady who had been trapped un­der the rub­ble for six days – 130 hours with­out food or wa­ter.

“We pulled out 21 dead bod­ies be­fore her, and she, the 22nd per­son, was alive. She’s now back with her chil­dren, Baruch Hashem.”

Mr Polizer joined IsraAID in 2011, after the Fukushima dis­as­ter in Japan.

“After three and half years in Nepal, in 2011 I was fi­nally ready to go back home to Is­rael and start my life — and then the tsunami in Japan hap­pened,” he said.

“The per­son who used to run IsraAID of­fered me the chance to go on their air­lift mis­sion. He knew me from the small net­work of Is­raeli ac­tivists work­ing in de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

“I took a plane from Lon­don, a British Air­ways flight from Lon­don to Tokyo and it was al­most com­pletely empty, just me and a few other peo­ple on the plane — ev­ery­one was run­ning away be­cause of the ra­di­a­tion.

“Again, I was sup­posed to be there for two weeks, those two weeks turned into three years.”

IsraAID was started in 2001 by a group of Is­raeli ac­tivists, in­clud­ing, as Mr Polizer says, “doc­tors, nurses, psy­chol­o­gists and en­gi­neers”.

Over the next few years, they un­der­took a num­ber of short-term emer­gency re­lief mis­sions, but the or­gan­i­sa­tion only emerged in its cur­rent, per­ma­nent form fol­low­ing the 2010 earth­quake

in Haiti,

where fa­mously, an Is­raeli team was on the ground in Haiti be­fore even the Amer­i­cans.

“Since then it’s been ex­panded and we’re now work­ing in 19 coun­tries, with 300 paid staff and around 1,500 vol­un­teers,” Mr Polizer says.

IsraAID’s fo­cus tends to be slightly dif­fer­ent than that of other or­gan­i­sa­tions.

“We re­alised both in Haiti and in Japan, what hap­pens after dis­as­ters is what I’d cyn­i­cally call the ‘Aid Fes­ti­val’,” Mr Polizer ex­plains.

“It’s phe­nom­e­non where all of a sud­den, a place like Haiti or Fukushima, a place be­comes the cen­tre of at­ten­tion, the me­dia is there, tons of sup­plies, do­na­tions, ran­dom vol­un­teers.

“And usu­ally after two weeks, one month, 95 per cent of the peo­ple are gone. The me­dia has ob­vi­ously moved to the next thing, and then there is a real gap — and the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion, who were trau­ma­tised by a ter­ri­ble dis­as­ter and be­came the cen­tre of at­ten­tion, are then re-trau­ma­tised be­cause they were aban­doned. So we re­ally re­alised that it’s very im­por­tant for us to be first on the ground, but it’s even more im­por­tant to stay after ev­ery­one leaves, and to re­ally help the

com­mu­nity re­build it­self so they can even­tu­ally sup­port them­selves.”

The IsraAID team has spe­cial ex­per­tise in cer­tain ar­eas, in­clud­ing wa­ter and san­i­ta­tion, but also long-term psy­cho­log­i­cal sup­port.

In Fukushima, Mr Polizer says, the or­gan­i­sa­tion “fo­cused mostly on trauma sup­port. We trained and sup­ported around 3,000 teach­ers in ten dif­fer­ent cities in Japan, start­ing from a small kinder­garten where eight chil­dren died.

“To me, the Ja­panese didn’t re­ally need sup­port in terms of in­fra­struc­ture or sup­plies. What they re­ally didn’t have was a lot of the emo­tional sup­port. Un­for­tu­nately in Is­rael, be­cause of our own trau­mas from the con­flict and the Holo­caust, we have de­vel­oped ex­per­tise in build­ing com­mu­nity re­silience and so­cial sup­port. So we started to bring this knowl­edge to Japan.”

Other IsraAID projects in­clude one in South Su­dan, where the or­gan­i­sa­tion “trained the first gen­er­a­tion of so­cial work­ers in the coun­try, to pro­vide sup­port for vic­tims of gen­der based vi­o­lence, such as sex­ual abuse and rape”.

The NGO also works with refugees

from Syria and Iraq.

“It pri­mar­ily started in Greece, on [the is­land of] Les­bos,” Mr Polizer says.

“Thou­sands of refugees were ar­riv­ing ev­ery day — it be­came a huge refugee camp. It was an in­ter­est­ing oper­a­tion, be­cause we have Is­raeli Jews and Is­raeli Arabs work­ing to­gether. The Is­raeli Arabs speak the lan­guage, so that was a huge ad­van­tage we had on all of the other [or­gan­i­sa­tions].

“We’re still there run­ning our school for refugees — the only school on the is­land. It’s called the School of Peace, a beau­ti­ful school. We run it in part­ner­ship with the Hashomer Hat- zair youth move­ment.

“It’s run­ning there in six or seven dif­fer­ent lan­guages, by the refugees — the teach­ers are also refugees. It’s in­cred­i­ble to see how in this school you have Is­raelis Jews, Arab Is­raelis who con­sider them­selves Pales­tini­ans, Ira­ni­ans, Syr­i­ans — all work­ing to­gether un­der the same um­brella — and it’s like the most nor­mal thing in the world. It’s a very pow­er­ful project.”

Mr Polizer of­ten has to dis­pel mis­con­cep­tions about IsraAID.

“When­ever I start a pre­sen­ta­tion, the first thing I say is that IsraAID is an NGO, it’s a non-po­lit­i­cal, non-gov­ern­men­tal or­gan­i­sa­tion.

“On the one hand, we have a very strong con­nec­tion to Is­rael, by def­i­ni­tion, by name, the type of pro­grammes, the type of ex­per­tise we’re bring­ing, we def­i­nitely see our­selves as rep­re­sent­ing Is­raeli civil so­ci­ety.

“On the other hand, some peo­ple think that IsraAID is the equiv­a­lent of USAID or UKAID, which is the govern­ment, so it’s very im­por­tant for us to clar­ify this. It’s even more im­por­tant be­cause we are work­ing in places that the govern­ment of Is­rael would not be able to. We work in Iraq, we have a pro­gramme in Iraq with the Yazidi refugees, we have a pro­gramme in In­done­sia, fol­low­ing the earth­quake and tsunami they had, a pro­gramme in Bangladesh to sup­port the Ro­hingya refugees from Myan­mar.

“There are places that don’t have diplo­matic re­la­tions with Is­rael. So there our work is with lo­cal part­ners. The govern­ment may not be aware that we are there.”

It is no se­cret that, for a grow­ing num­ber of Jews in the di­as­pora, the idea of hav­ing a strong con­nec­tion to Is­rael has been sup­planted by that of ‘Tikkun Olam’ — mak­ing the world a bet­ter place.

But Mr Polizer wants peo­ple to know that they do not have to choose be­tween the two.

“I think it’s very sad and trou­bling some­what that right now, es­pe­cially the younger gen­er­a­tion, see it as two sep­a­rate things,” he says.

“The more time I spend here or in the US or Canada, I see that we have a re­ally a role to play to bridge this gap. We want to pro­vide peo­ple this op­por­tu­nity to do hands on, mean­ing­ful hu­man­i­tar­ian work, and still be con­nected to their Jewish val­ues and to Is­rael.”

The or­gan­i­sa­tion’s coun­try di­rec­tor in Do­minica, for ex­am­ple, is led by Han­nah Gaventa, from the UK’s Jewish com­mu­nity.

IsraAID, she says, is “pro­vid­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties for vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple to build re­siliency and sup­port re­cov­ery in an is­land that was 90 per cent de­stroyed by Hur­ri­cane Maria last year.

“It would be great to see more UK Jewish pro­fes­sion­als get­ting in­volved in this work — any­one with a skill can make a dif­fer­ence.”


After the cross­ing: An IsraAid worker help­ing refugees ar­riv­ing on Les­bos, Greece.

IsraAid work­ers help­ing find Nepal earth­quake vic­tims and (right) Yotam Polizer

ove: How the JC cov­ered the IsraAid’s sup­port for Leeds flood vic­tims in Jan­uary 2016

All smiles: Han­nah Gaventa (cen­tre) and the IsraAID Do­minica team

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