Late one night back in September, Naama Gorodischer, a worker with the Israeli humanitarian relief organization IsraAID, was driving back from the beach in Lesbos where she had been assisting refugees arriving at the Greek shore in flimsy boats. Thousands were walking along the side of the road. Gorodischer noticed a lone woman struggling there, a baby in her arms. Three other small children straggled along beside her on the dark road. Gorodischer, 31, stopped the car and gestured to the woman to get inside.
Once in the car, the two elder children fell asleep immediately, exhausted. The woman, dazed by the journey and separated from her spouse, sobbed all the way to the transit camp at the center of Lesbos. “We communicated with her in gestures,” Gorodischer recalls. “That was all we had but it was enough to let her know we were her friends and we were there to help.”
For the past three years, Gorodischer, a community developer, has been working with people in need from all over the world. She has traveled to Africa, Jordan and more recently to the borders of Greece, Croatia and Serbia. “We work wherever there is a crisis, either through war or natural disasters,” Gorodischer explains. “We do not deal with politics but with people in crisis, and we go wherever we’re needed.”
IsraAID employs around sixty workers today, scattered over the world. A further sixty to one hundred volunteer. Teams are posted at key stops on the way, including the borders with Greece, Croatia, Serbia and Macedonia. All are professionals, mainly medical workers, psychologists and social workers. They are Jews, Muslims and Christians, all Israeli but working together for the good of others, a rare example of coexistence in a country continuously torn apart by religious and political tension. They stand together on beaches and at transit camps wearing dark blue t-shirts stamped with the IsraAId logo. They distribute essential supplies and provide psychological assistance to the often traumatized refugees.
No one cares what nationality the Israelis are, not even the many fleeing Syria, a country that has engaged in hostilities with Israel for decades. The fact is, these people are too busy concentrating on physical survival for themselves and their families.
“What shocks me is the damage these experiences do to their ability to dream, to see their future in a positive way,” Gorodischer explains, “or to even see a future.”
The migrants arrive at Lesbos after being herded onto boats, the men sitting on the sides and the women and children in the middle, tightly packed together for between two six hours, depending on weather conditions. Unbearably, one child drowned on the boat when it became waterlogged. “What can you say to a mother who loses a child like that?” Gorodischer asks.
Families are often separated in the rush to get away to a safer place. Frequently, the women remain alone with their children. For the first time, women who come from a traditionally patriarchal society are thrust into a position of responsibility in which they must make decisions in order to keep their children alive and safe. IsraAID tries to help them by offering modest packs of soap bubbles, crayons and soft balls for children, and also baby carriers, but mostly by counseling them in their own language. It also offers essential supplies.
Occasionally, a woman who has been on the road for days will shyly tap Gorodischer on the shoulder and ask for sanitary pads and clean underwear. Many women breastfeed in impossible conditions, where privacy is impossible and nutrition is poor. For days, they stand around in lines, or travel in buses from one point to another. There is little that can be done for the many thousands of female refugees in this position, but a little goes a long way. IsraAID provides a tent for women to breastfeed in privacy and also counsels women whose milk has dried up.
The work carried out by this Israeli organization stands in stark contrast to the lack of compassion afforded to refugees by the government of Israel. A country founded by refugees, Israel is often accused of ethnocentricity, and with good cause. To date, almost 50,000 refugees have escaped to Israel under life-threatening circumstances. They have been met mostly with hostility by the Israeli authorities. A few months ago, Israel attempted to send back asylum seekers en masse—a death sentence. Today, many are held at the Holot detention center in southern Israel. From time to time, migrants are released from there but even then the future is unclear since they have no legal status. With no other choice, many scrape by, working illegally in Israel. Meanwhile, a massive fence built along Israel’s southern edge has stemmed the steady flow of refugees into the country.
For many in and outside Israel, it is hard to understand why the government of the Jewish people— who suffered persecution during WWII and who were at the mercy of countries willing to take them in—would now turn its back on the plight of refugees today.
During these tense times, the work of IsraAID and other humanitarian organizations provides a critical lifeline. It is certainly not enough to answer the burgeoning needs of refugees but it does offer initial support to as many people as possible. “In situations like this, all the barriers fall away—politics doesn’t come into it.” Gorodischer says. Meanwhile, thousands of migrants stream into Europe and the crisis continues.