Volunteers from Israeli aid agency IsraAid are helping Syrian refugees off the boats in Greece. But they need your help, hears Stephen Oryszczuk
The man supervising Israel’s rescue of Syrian refugees off the Greek coast is lost for words. He’s been asked to sum up the scale of the crisis. “You’re standing there on the beach, with all these little rubber boats bringing thousands of people every day,” he says finally. “Honestly? It’s like a tragic scene from a Hollywood epic.”
This is Yotam Polizer, regional director at IsraAID, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) that relies on donations to offer emergency medical and psychological support to Syrian refugees arriving in Greece, Serbia, Croatia, Jordan and Iraq.
His social activism has taken him from the Negev to Nepal via Japanese tsunamis and typhoons in the Philippines, but only now is he speechless. It’s not surprising. He is on the front-line of a mass migration, the biggest movement of people in 70 years, with 70,000 arriving in Europe every week. And he has just 12 people to help him.
“It’s not enough, nowhere near,” he says, describing the eight volunteers on the Greek island of Lesbos and the two small mobile units across Serbia and Croatia, which move with the flow of people. “That’s why I’m here in the UK, to ask for help.”
For years, Yotam’s teams have been helping Syrian refugees in Kurdistan (northern Iraq) and Jordan, “places where you can never be too sure who’s a friend and who’s not,” but it was only this summer that he began operations in Europe.
Why now? He cites the images of three-year- old Aylan Kurdi lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. “It influenced the decision, definitely. It’s difficult for us to get support, but the media interest helped enormously. The media creates reality in many ways. But it had other effects, too. The boy influenced a lot of refugees to come, when Germany said it would take 800,000, so whereas it was a crisis before, since then it’s just been surreal. You have rubber boats coming literally every minute.”
In their first five weeks, his team of volunteer doctors, psychologists, nurses and aid workers have helped more than 50,000 people, he reckons. They’re operating on adrenalin and dedication. Many flew out over Rosh Hashanah.
“It’s very Jewish, very Israeli, wanting to be the first there,” he admits. They’ve since given hundreds of Syrian families psychological support following trauma, including the loss of loved ones on the way, while others have been the victims of “gender-based abuse,” says Yotam – a grim reminder of the realities of war.
When they arrive, all are offered emergency medical aid, provisions, information and maps. “Most don’t even know they’re on an island,” he says. “They think they’re on the mainland, so there’s disappointment. It’s a 70km walk to the port on the other side.” They don’t dwell, staying only for three or four days at one of two camps to register as asylum-seekers before striking out for Germany. Still, it’s enough time for IsraAID to hand out clothes and food, provide counselling and even run art therapy sessions for children. “Kids express their trauma through drawing,” says Yotam. “It’s very moving.”
The organisation does not currently use boats, because it does not have the financing, so they often cannot save those who go overboard at sea, he says. But three weeks ago, the team saw a boat capsize 500 metres from the coast in poor weather, sending the Israelis diving in. Dramatic photos of the rescue have since been widely circulated on social media.
“Many have hypothermia, but it’s that kind of thing where we’re able to help them,” he says. “In general, we just try to give very practical help. For example, Israeli mothers got together last month and gave us 3,000 baby slings, because these Syrian mothers have to travel huge distances on foot. It’s whatever they need.”
Half the team are Arab Israelis, with some Christian, some Muslim. Of the Muslim Israelis, who identify as Palestinian, some are Bedouin, but others – crucially – are from northern Israel, near the border with Syria, who speak an Arabic dialect very similar to that of the refugees.
“It’s hugely important,” says Yotam. “It means we can communicate with them. We’re one of the only groups with that capability. It’s one reason why the UN gave us the primary role in offering psychological support.”
Working with the UN? “Sure. We work with UN agencies, charities and NGOs, including Save the Children, Action Aid, even Islamic Relief,” he explains. “It’s interesting, some of the bridges this crisis is building. Many [refugees] are shocked to see Israelis on the shore, helping them when they arrive, but no one has refused our help. Many are well- educated, I speak to them in Arabic and English. One man, whose family we helped, said: ‘My biggest enemy became my biggest supporter.’ So they have an identity crisis. They’ve been taught one thing about Israelis, but now they’re seeing another.”
Soon to return, what he needs, he says, is money, support (“please spread the word!”) and volunteers from the UK, who – like the Israeli doctors and therapists – could take a few weeks out of work to come and help. “It’s not difficult, just an email to us and a flight from London to Lesbos,” he says with a shrug.
Finally, does he see a reflection of the Jewish experience in this crisis, as many in the UK have said? “Of course, we can relate. It’s personal. My own grandparents were Holocaust survivors from Hungary. They lived in a camp in Cyprus before they were let into Israel. For them, I know that what I’m doing is a very important thing.”