'We pulled out 21 bodies. The 22nd person was alive'

IsraAID co-CEO Yotam Polizer tells Daniel Sugarman how the NGO made a name for itself offering crisis responses, from resilience training to search-and-rescue


When his army service finished a decade ago, Yotam Polizer did what thousands of other Israelis do — he went to India, “followed the Hummus Trail and found myself in Nepal”.

After completing what was supposed to be a 21-day trek in just nine days (perhaps unwisely, he had opted to hike it with a friend who had recently completed his service in Israel’s elite Sayeret Matkal unit), he found himself in the famous Chabad House in Kathmandu, site of the world’s largest Pesach Seder.

“I saw a small ad for an organisation which had been established to bring together Israeli Jewish backpackers to do volunteer work,” he said.

“I thought ‘that sounds cool, I’ll do it for two hours and then continue’.

“I ended up staying there for three and a half years… I learned Nepalese, which proved to be very useful.”

Just how useful would become clear a few years later, when Mr Polizer, now co-CEO of IsraAID, Israel’s largest humanitarian NGO, returned to Nepal after a devastating earthquake, and linked up with a search and rescue team.

“Partly because of my language skills, but also because of a lot of luck, we were able to find the last survivor of the earthquake, a lady who had been trapped under the rubble for six days – 130 hours without food or water.

“We pulled out 21 dead bodies before her, and she, the 22nd person, was alive. She’s now back with her children, Baruch Hashem.”

Mr Polizer joined IsraAID in 2011, after the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

“After three and half years in Nepal, in 2011 I was finally ready to go back home to Israel and start my life — and then the tsunami in Japan happened,” he said.

“The person who used to run IsraAID offered me the chance to go on their airlift mission. He knew me from the small network of Israeli activists working in developing countries. “I took a plane from London, a British Airways flight from London to Tokyo and it was almost completely empty, just me and a few other people on the plane — everyone was running away because of the radiation.

“Again, I was supposed to be there for two weeks, those two weeks turned into three years.” IsraAID was started in 2001 by a group of Israeli activists, including, as Mr Polizer says, “doctors, nurses, psychologists and engineers”. Over the next few years, they undertook a number of short-term emergency relief missions, but the organisation only emerged in its current, permanent form following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, where famously, an Israeli team was on the ground in Haiti before even the Americans. “Since then it’s been expanded and we’re now working in 19 countries, with 300 paid staff and around 1,500 volunteers,” Mr Polizer says.

IsraAID’s focus tends to be slightly different than that of other organisations.

“We realised both in Haiti and in Japan, what happens after disasters is what I’d cynically call the ‘Aid Festival’,” Mr Polizer explains.

“It’s phenomenon where all of a sudden, a place like Haiti or Fukushima, a place becomes the centre of attention, the media is there, tons of supplies, donations, random volunteers.

“And usually after two weeks, one month, 95 per cent of the people are gone. The media has obviously moved to the next thing, and then there is a real gap — and the local population, who were traumatised by a terrible disaster and became the centre of attention, are then re-traumatised because they were abandoned. So we really realised that it’s very important for us to be first on the ground, but it’s even more important to stay after everyone leaves, and to really help the community rebuild itself so they can eventually support themselves.”

The IsraAID team has special expertise in certain areas, including water and sanitation, but also long-term psychological support.

In Fukushima, Mr Polizer says, the organisation “focused mostly on trauma support. We trained and supported around 3,000 teachers in ten different cities in Japan, starting from a small kindergarten where eight children died.

“To me, the Japanese didn’t really need support in terms of infrastructure or supplies. What they really didn’t have was a lot of the emotional support. Unfortunately in Israel, because of our own traumas from the conflict and the Holocaust, we have developed expertise in building community resilience and social support. So we started to bring this knowledge to Japan.”

Other IsraAID projects include one in South Sudan, where the organisation “trained the first generation of social workers in the country, to provide support for victims of gender based violence, such as sexual abuse and rape”.

The NGO also works with refugees from Syria and Iraq.

“It primarily started in Greece, on [the island of] Lesbos,” Mr Polizer says.

“Thousands of refugees were arriving every day — it became a huge refugee camp. It was an interesting operation, because we have Israeli Jews and Israeli Arabs working together. The Israeli Arabs speak the language, so that was a huge advantage we had on all of the other [organisations].

“We’re still there running our school for refugees — the only school on the island. It’s called the School of Peace, a beautiful school. We run it in partnership with the Hashomer Hatzair youth movement.

“It’s running there in six or seven different languages, by the refugees — the teachers are also refugees. It’s incredible to see how in this school you have Israelis Jews, Arab Israelis who consider themselves Palestinians, Iranians, Syrians — all working together under the same umbrella — and it’s like the most normal thing in the world. It’s a very powerful project.”

Mr Polizer often has to dispel misconceptions about IsraAID.

“Whenever I start a presentation, the first thing I say is that IsraAID is an NGO, it’s a non-political, non-governmental organisation.

“On the one hand, we have a very strong connection to Israel, by definition, by name, the type of programmes, the type of expertise we’re bringing, we definitely see ourselves as representing Israeli civil society.

“On the other hand, some people think that IsraAID is the equivalent of USAID or UKAID, which is the government, so it’s very important for us to clarify this. It’s even more important because we are working in places that the government of Israel would not be able to. We work in Iraq, we have a programme in Iraq with the Yazidi refugees, we have a programme in Indonesia, following the earthquake and tsunami they had, a programme in Bangladesh to support the Rohingya refugees from Myanmar.

“There are places that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel. So there our work is with local partners. The government may not be aware that we are there.”

It is no secret that, for a growing number of Jews in the diaspora, the idea of having a strong connection to Israel has been supplanted by that of ‘Tikkun Olam’ — making the world a better place.

But Mr Polizer wants people to know that they do not have to choose between the two.

“I think it’s very sad and troubling somewhat that right now, especially the younger generation, see it as two separate things,” he says.

“The more time I spend here or in the US or Canada, I see that we have a really a role to play to bridge this gap. We want to provide people this opportunity to do hands on, meaningful humanitarian work, and still be connected to their Jewish values and to Israel.”

The organisation’s country director in Dominica, for example, is led by Hannah Gaventa, from the UK’s Jewish community.

IsraAID, she says, is “providing opportunities for vulnerable people to build resiliency and support recovery in an island that was 90 per cent destroyed by Hurricane Maria last year.

“It would be great to see more UK Jewish professionals getting involved in this work — anyone with a skill can make a difference.”

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