For the past 18 months in Syria, as the death toll has climbed past 100,000 and chemical weapons have apparently been used against residents of Damascus, an Israeli NGO has been covertly crossing the border to deliver aid to civilians.
While the possibility of punitive strikes on Bashar Assad’s forces for his use of chemical weapons has dominated the news in the US and Europe, the NGO’s founder and CEO, who requested that she and her organisation are not identified given the high risks involved in their work, said: “For us, the prevention of aid [by the regime] has long been a crime.”
Unbeknown to the Assad regime, her organisation has brought in some 300,000 meals, five ambulances and 700 tons of aid via a secretive smuggling route.
The idea for the NGO started, unexpectedly, when her brother was wounded in the Lebanon war.
“It made me understand how blessed I was that we had amazing infrastructure in my country supporting him,” she said. “I made a vow that if he gets better, then I will go to help others.”
Since founding the organisation in 2005, she has viewed her work as a way of participating in the Jewish tradition of tikkun olam, or healing the world.
Her group of 200 volunteers — including doctors, psychologists and social workers — has worked in Pakistan, Darfur, Iraq and numerous other countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel.
Although some in Israel dismiss the volunteers as radical left-wingers, the CEO said that all its members have served in the Israeli army and see the protection of children and civilians as a universal, and Jewish, responsibility.
On discovering the Jewish-Israeli identity of one volunteer, one injured Syrian man exclaimed, through tears, “We knew the whole time those who would come to us would be Jews — what took so long?”
Not everyone has been so welcoming, however, and because the organisation lacks official affiliation, they also lack protection on the ground.
One Syrian rebel commander, whose men had been aided by the NGO, said: “Let me finish with them [the Syrian government], and then I’m coming for you.”
Such sentiments have failed to deter the NGO, however. “For all of our volunteers,” the CEO declared, “the fear of being ignorant is even greater than the fear of dying.”