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An Unlikely Partnership: Israeli Aid Agency Partners With Arab Volunteers To Save Refugees In Greece

In the middle of the refugee crisis, an Israeli aid agency dismantles decades of cultural animosity by rescuing Syrian asylum seekers. One Australian woman bears witness to it all

Earlier this year Alethea Gold, a woman from Sydney’s eastern suburbs, stood on the beach on the Greek island of Lesvos, having just arrived as a volunteer for charity IsraAID.

Before arriving, Gold had heard reports that the agency – comprised of Israeli aid workers – was working closely with Arab volunteers to rescue Syrian refugees, despite the historic tension and animosity between the two cultures.

But within hours of arriving in Lesvos, Gold was standing fighting blustering, cold winds to frantically pull drenched, shivering, shocked Syrian refugees off a rubber dinghy that had miraculously made – and survived – the treacherous overnight journey from Turkey.

Standing on the beach that first day with the IsraAID team, any preconceived notions of tension and animosity between two cultures that Gold may have had, dissipated completely.

“When I saw the first boat come in, it was surreal, like a scene from a horror movie. Men, women and children screaming, crying, total pandemonium. People drenched up to their necks, literally freezing and some in almost catatonic shock. Then out of the chaos emerges this incredible ‘factory-line’ of aid workers and volunteers, all working rapidly together to attend to the refugees immediate needs. The children and the elderly are the first to receive care and are stripped of their wet clothing, wrapped in foil blankets, dressed in dry clothes and given hot tea, biscuits and chocolate to help raise their sugar levels.”

Gold says the IsraAID medical team works frantically to administer medical treatment to those most in need, often, sadly, including CPR for those for whom the journey has proved too gruelling. She says much of this takes place in the dark of night as many boats try to make it to the island without being detected by authorities.

Leading the team in Lesvos is an Israeli Palestinian by the name of Manal Shehade.

Born in Nazareth and with Arabic as her mother tongue, Shehade says she originally joined IsraAID as a volunteer for two weeks. “I wanted to see what it was like. When I left I realised I could not go back to my old life. I returned home and told my boss that I could not be there, sitting at a desk, when I knew what was happening in this crisis.”

She returned to join IsraAID full-time and is now heads up the team in Lesvos.

Speaking from Lesvos, Shehade says she doesn’t see the refugee crisis ending anytime soon and says she is deeply committed to helping the refugees there. “In many ways these are my people, we share the same language and religion and this is history happening right here and we are looking at it through our own eyes. I want to feel like I am contributing positively. One day I want to look back and say I was there, and I hope I helped to ease someone’s suffering.”

“My team is small but remarkable”, she adds. “We have two Arab Bedouin nurses, an Arab paramedic, a Jewish Paramedic, two Jewish doctors and two psychologists, one Jewish and one Muslim, both specialising in emergency trauma counselling.”

Shehade describes the relationships within the team as extremely close. “We are all here for one cause and politics back home is not our focus. Our focus is the refugees. We are all together in this. This team is my support and I look to them and talk to them as a family. There is a lot of emotion in this situation and only we really understand what each other is going through. We cry together often because what is happening here is not normal, it is incredibly painful to see this level of suffering.”

“When we have breaks between the boat arrivals, we sit around bonfires and we talk. Sometimes we talk about the struggles between our people and we have conflicting views, of course, but we are together in this cause. When you are here, you see that humanity has failed on so many levels, but then I look at my team and I know there is still so much good in the world and there is hope.”

Once in Lesvos, Gold quickly realised how gruelling and emotionally draining the work would be.

“There are two tiny rooms on opposite ends of the island where the team and volunteers stay, some even sleep on the floor or on couches. Everyone is on standby 24 hours a day”, says Gold.

“The team is usually on the beach before 7am but often much earlier if ‘spotters’ on the island see a boat coming in through telescopic binoculars.”

Gold draws a mental picture of the Island. “There are cafes and restaurants and locals on scooters going about their business – and then there are the deserted boats – skeletons of the stories of desperate people fearing for their lives and the cunning and ruthless people smugglers.”

Gold used her time on the island to relieve exhausted volunteers and to attend to the emotional and physical needs of the newly arrived refugees.

She felt a special connection with many of them who talked to her about their journeys. “They told me they had left everything behind and arrived with nothing, many having had their possessions and money stolen by the people smugglers in Turkey. Most of these people don’t know how to swim, let alone skipper a boat, yet vessels designed to hold a maximum of 20 passengers are sometimes loaded with sixty to seventy people and pushed out to sea. Their stories are harrowing.”

Gold’s eye swell with tears as she describes how one young boy was pushed into the middle of a packed dinghy, away from his parents and was found dead when the boat arrived on shore, having suffocated and drowned. She says the IsraAID team was utterly dedicated to helping the child’s grieving mother who gave birth three days later to a baby boy, delivered by one of the IsraAID’s paramedics, Malek Abu Grara.

She is still clearly affected by the sheer horror of what she witnessed and the stories she heard.

“Some of the children arrive on the island suffering from severe hyperthermia. The water temperature is freezing and they are continuously splashed by waves on the journey. We managed to save one little girl by treating her immediately, but just metres away, right before me, a little baby died, minutes after being taken off a boat.”

Gold explains that when a boat comes in the IsraAID team and volunteers physically help the refugees off the vessel and then call out in Arabic to ask who needs medical assistance. The medical staff then attend to the refugees in order of priority.

To ensure that there are dry clothes for the next boatload of people, once removed, wet clothes are taken to be washed and dried by a local charity called ‘Dirty Girls’. They are then sorted in to buckets by size and gender and are ready for the next arrivals.

After receiving medical treatment and dry clothes, the refugees are escorted on a UNHCR bus to the Moria Refugee Camp where they are officially registered.

They remain on Lesvos until they are emotionally and physically ready to make the 12-hour ferry journey to Athens.

Gold says the enormous number of refugees arriving on Lesvos is evidenced by the extensive “lifejacket graveyard” on the beach, spanning hundreds and hundreds of metres and piled 15 feet high.

“Many of the life jackets are fake”, says Gold. “They’re stuffed with newspaper instead of foam, leaving no chance for survival if a passenger falls in the water or the boat capsizes.”

She says the stress of the journey to Lesvos is horrific and describes the situation as an “ongoing humanitarian catastrophe.”

Gold recalls one harrowing night in particular. “The team had left the beach around midnight, assuming there were be no more boats before daylight. They were wrong. At 2.30am ‘spotters’ saw a boat coming in on the rocks. We rushed to the rocky outcrop. The dinghy was packed. Men, women and children, frozen and in great shock.”

Gold immediately grabbed a little girl from the chaos.

“She was shaking violently. She had hypothermia and would not talk or open her mouth to receive food. All I could do was hold her, hug her until she felt better and trusted that I would help her. A beautiful 4-year-old child, who had experienced far too much for her young life.”

There was another person who Gold says she will never forget. “She was young girl, 17-years-old, beautiful, wearing a gold scarf around her head. She was completely drenched and as I tried to help her to remove her wet clothes she fell to her knees crying. I put my arms around her and she held onto to me tightly and sobbed and I cried with her. That was all I could do to help her.”

Three days later Gold went to the Moria Refugee Camp to look for the little girl who had hypothermia to see how she was doing. “As I walked through the camp I heard a scream and someone grabbed me from behind. When I turned I saw the gold scarf and knew it was the beautiful girl from the beach. She told me her name was Tayeba and said she had recognised me by my red hair. We embraced and cried, she introduced me to her family and we drank tea together.”

At an age when she should be free to enjoy her youth, Tayeba is instead in a refugee camp in northern Greece with her family, hoping to cross the border to Macedonia and then on to Germany.

Alethea and Tayeba. Photo: Supplied

But with the recent closure of the border between Greece and Macedonia, this outcome is looking less and less likely.

Speaking through an interpreter, Tayeba says she is extremely concerned about the future. She is afraid that she and her family will be sent back to Turkey.

“Turkey is a dangerous place. There are too many dangerous people with knives and we have already been through so much. The journey to Lesvos was terrible, we have no clean clothes and we are running out of money for food. I am still wearing the same clothes I received when I came to Lesvos and my friend (Gold) took my wet clothes from me.”

Tayeba and her family are originally from Mazar-i-Sharif in Afghanistan. The distress in her voice is clear as she describes the day she was told by the Taliban that she and her sisters would no longer be permitted to go to school.

“They came to us and warned us not to attend school. Some days later, the Taliban bombed my father’s shop in a night market. We had no income and no future under the Taliban and so my family fled to Turkey and we gave all our money to the smugglers to get to Greece.”

Tayeba’s family are among the more fortunate refugees who survive the journey across the Aegean. She is emotional as she speaks about the IsraAID team: ”I am so happy that these people were on the beach when we arrived, to help us. It doesn’t matter to me if they are an Israeli organisation. I am just happy that someone is helping my family survive this. They are good people.”

Hagit Krakov is the Head of Disaster Management for IsraAID. Krakov says in all her years with the aid agency she has never heard a refugee make a disparaging remark about the Israeli group.

Krakov worked alongside a small team in Greece at the Macedonian border, before heading to Fiji in late February to manage the recovery effort in the aftermath of Cyclone Winston.

She says the situation in Greece is in fact, quite remarkable: “There’s a complete role reversal. These people are running away from those who are supposed to represent them and supposed to defend them – and they’re running into the arms of those who represent their biggest enemy and yet we are there to support and try and assist them as much as we can.”

“We tell them we care. We want to know their names and their stories. We say to them ‘I want to help you and I’m going to help you’”.

Krakov explains: “We have incredible integrated teams of people who are Jewish, Christian, Bedouin and Muslim and we are all there for one goal and that is to help the person we see in front of us in these completely abnormal situations.”

Gold agrees and says she has no doubt in her mind that without the work IsraAID is doing, not just in Greece, but in 18 countries around the globe, thousands more lives would be lost.

 “They’ve worked with Ebola-affected communities in Western Africa, been active in Japan since the tsunami and the Fukushima disaster, have helped rebuild in Haiti and cyclone-ravaged remote islands in the Philippines. They are also currently in Fiji re-building damaged homes, purifying contaminated water and providing Psychosocial and trauma support to the post-hurricane affected communities.

But, Gold says, perhaps most heartening for her, was the opportunity to witness first hand the mutual admiration, respect and warmth within the IsraAID team, despite its diversity of religions and cultures.

“Most Israeli’s and Arabs believe the hostility between their people is inescapable and unsolvable. But not on this beach. In Lesvos, the IsraAID team works in perfect harmony with the singular focus of rescuing and saving Syrian, Iraqi and Afghani lives. To feel and witness the friendship and closeness of this incredible team of people was one of the most touching experiences of my life. Arabs and Israelis doing a job together, sometimes crying and often holding

Gold says she had no idea what she was getting herself into when she left for Lesvos. “Never in my life will I forget what I saw on that beach, on that Island and it has changed me forever”.

She left the island with a heavy heart, feeling empty and tired yet also humbled and inspired by the unity of the IsraAID team. “Arabs and Israelis are not at war here. Here, in this incredible team, they kiss and hug. Israelis and Syrians are not at war here. Here in the midst of chaos and suffering, enemies no longer exist.”

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