IsraAID: In Disasters, the First to Arrive and the Last to Leave

Israelis have extinguished Hanukkah’s 2018 candles but one of Israel’s lights will shine all year long. IsraAid, an Israel-based non-governmental organization (NGO) has already sent its experts to 49 nations since its inception in 2001. Although their teams are small, their lasting impact leaves a large footprint of humanitarian aid matched with a broad range of professional help to populations impacted by war, natural disasters, poverty, and displacement.
IsraAID rescues refugees who have made the dangerous journey to Greece. Photo Credit: IsraAID
IsraAID rescues refugees who have made the dangerous journey to Greece. Photo Credit: IsraAID

I’ve often read about IsraAID’s work ( because my heart responds to their purpose. I welcomed the pleasure of meeting Co-CEO Yotam Polizer when he spoke recently at a local synagogue. Before I retired from AIPAC as their SE Regional Christian Outreach Director, I previously served for 8 years with Mercy Ships ( the world’s largest private hospital ship. Its flagship is a floating “Christian United Nations.” And Israel, a “nation united” is also composed of those who are motivated by compassion and a calling to reach out to suffering populations. Mercy Ships and IsraAID are two superlative organizations which share the DNA of ancient faiths motivated by compassion.

IsraAID’s project in northern Uganda trains the locals to maintain clean water and agricultural skills to help their own communities. Photo Credit: IsraAID

For Israel, wrongly defamed at every turn, IsraAID is a shining example of Israel’s commitment to helping others. IsraAID “repairs the world” regardless of religion or ethnicity. Its staff and volunteers view others as simply people in need. It’s clear that Israel remains a light to the world just as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob planned it. Genesis 12: 2-3 “I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing…and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (New King James Version)

God’s ancient promises are a modern reality through multiple Israeli innovations and initiatives including IsraAID. Their staff passports are stamped with nations in need all over the world from Nepal to Japan, Sierra Leone to Germany, and the US to Philippines; populations dealing with earthquakes, tsunamis, Ebola, refugees, hurricanes, and fires. Yotam described their intensive efforts on the ground and their immediate interactions with local rescuers and other NGOs to divide up and assign their roles to provide the services they are each best at.

IsraAID’s team in South Sudan is working alongside UNICEF & UNHCR to combat violence against women. 65% of women in South Sudan suffer gender-based violence. Photo Credit: IsraAID

The stories Yotam shared are at once heartbreaking and heartwarming. In Germany, their IsraAID team works with refugees from Muslim nations. They are “repairing the world” even in Germany, a nation that fomented the crushing horror of the Holocaust against the Jewish people. In Greece, they have rescued people from flimsy, dangerously overcrowded boats fleeing from Syria and Iraq. In one instance, immediately after they pulled a pregnant woman from the waters, they delivered her baby right there on the beach of Lesbos. Tragedy and joy wrapped into one moment. An English-speaking Syrian engineer rescued from drowning remarked with gratitude, “It’s my ‘supposed’ enemies who are saving my life, and my country which has tried to take my life.”

Often Yotam quips, “We are FILO, First In and Last Out.” Getting to Nepal though was an exception since IsraAID was unable to be the first on the ground due to Nepal’s damaged national airport. When they finally arrived, local rescuers told the IsraAID team about 22 people buried in a collapsed building. The locals had found 21 deceased. It was likely that the 22nd person did not survive but IsraAID rushed to the building anyway. Using an ultra-sensitive sound instrument the team dug and listened. Finally, they heard a bare whisper, “I am hurt.” The team and locals pulled her out rejoicing. The survivor spent 6 days under the rubble. She is now completely recovered from her injuries.

IsraAID is also active in the United States including areas devastated by Hurricanes Michael, Harvey, and Maria. In the northern California fires IsraAID sent in its trauma team to specifically help firefighters and police in Paradise, CA which was leveled by wildfires. They faced not only the loss of their own homes but the trauma of fighting the fires, rescuing, and then finding the deceased.

IsraAID responds to wildfires in Chico, California. Photo Credit: IsraAID

IsraAID specializes in trauma teams. And they are experts. Almost every day since 1948 when Israel declared its independence as a modern state, they have faced violence, wars, terrorists, hatred, and slander. As a result, they have developed effective methods to help their population deal with post-traumatic stress. Other countries now call on Israel’s professionals for training and help for those suffering traumas. IsraAID teams are especially gratified when they are successful in drawing children out through art where they can finally express their pain for the first time.

The NGO’s teams represent all Israel’s communities: Jewish, Bedouin, Arab and Ethiopian Israelis. Syrian refugees in Lesbos, Greece and in Germany for instance, are surprised when they are helped in their own language by an Israeli Arab. IsraAID engages 1400 volunteers and 270 staff which it rotates in and out of disaster areas. They maintain a long-term presence in locations like Puerto Rico, Haiti, Nepal and other nations scattered over the world.

The School of Peace is a role model for generations to come. Photo Credit: IsraAID

Yotam explained, “After about a month media attention and donations drop off. That’s why we maintain longer term help where we can. One of these is The School of Peace in Lesbos, Greece.” Yotam goes on to share an overarching goal for their aptly named School of Peace. “We view the school as a role model for the next generation who come from different countries. The school teaches in their languages with teachers from their own communities.” It’s a place of second chances for children who have fled war and violence. Around 4,000 refugee children live in Lesbos yet the school presently can only serve around 200 due to lack of finances. The School of Peace is surely worthy of donations and IsraAID wants to expand to educate all the children.

IsraAID is a beacon of light shining into the darkness of nations beset by disasters. They spread only good will while Israel itself is beset with virulent ill will. I pray that their light among the nations will reset the rising hatred against a nation that is indeed, in modern times, blessing the families of the earth.

About the Author
Arlene Bridges Samuels is a pioneer in pro-Israel Christian advocacy. In her positions for more than two decades-with Israel Always, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, (AIPAC) and International Christian Embassy Jerusalem USA's project, American Christian Leaders for Israel, national and regional Christian leaders in the Southeast have joined forces to stand alongside Israel. Traveling to Israel since 1990, she is now a weekly columnist for The Christian Broadcasting Network/Israel, Guest Columnist at All Israel News, and the Jerusalem Connection Report. Invited by the GPO she has attended their Christian Media Summit three times. Arlene serves on the board of Violins of Hope South Carolina, co-edited The Auschwitz Album Revisited, and gives briefings on several radio programs. In her college sophomore year, she won the title of Miss Florence, South Carolina and upon graduation from South Carolina's Winthrop University she earned her Masters degree at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Her devotionals are posted at The Eclectic Evangelical on Facebook.
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