Home inFocus “Start Up Nation” Leads International Aid Agency

“Start Up Nation” Leads International Aid Agency

Shachar Zahavi and Yael Eshel

Editor’s Note: U.S. aid to Israel comes largely in the form of security assistance—funds to help Israel purchase military hardware and technology to help defend itself from neighbors who remain unreconciled to its permanent, legitimate place in the Middle East. A great deal of that money is returned to the United States in the form of purchases of American goods and services. At the same time, Israel has developed a far-reaching foreign aid program of its own—taking its money, time, and specific areas of expertise to countries with enormous needs. In 1958, then-Foreign Minister Golda Meir pledged Israeli help to African countries facing challenges ranging from food security and water safety to the empowerment of women. In the ensuing 57 years, Israeli private and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have redeemed the pledge.

inFOCUS is pleased to highlight the work of IsraAID, an Israeli NGO working hand-in-hand with local governments and communities to recover and rebuild following natural and man-made disasters around the world. For over a decade, IsraAID has been helping people in many countries overcome extreme crises and has provided millions with the vital support needed to move from destruction to reconstruction, and eventually, to sustainable living.

Freetown, Sierra Leone

Nineteen-year-old Susan would have graduated from high school this year and headed for college, but Ebola struck and all her plans were put on hold; she now works at the 117 Ebola Emergency Response Center, receiving calls from distraught family members desperate for help. Each caller expects a personal, compassionate, and helpful response, and with so many calls coming in, Susan has to find a balance between empathy and urgency. She says she will not leave her position until Sierra Leoneans can once again embrace each other without fear—a decision that leaves her at risk of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

IsraAID’s psychosocial program in Sierra Leone is designed to provide concrete tools and coping mechanisms for those individuals spearheading the battle against Ebola. Susan is just one of the many local professionals taking advantage of IsraAID’s support and training services.

The Ebola crisis has had massive and devastating effects on West Africa with over 10,000 suspected to have been infected only in Sierra Leone, and more than 3,000 dead. And even as the disease’s devastating physical toll continues gradually to wind down, widespread stress and trauma in the affected countries is only beginning to surface, where families of infected patients have been completely isolated by their communities, and some have even resorted to violence.

The crisis is compounded by the realities of the affected countries, which have recently emerged from long periods of conflict and instability, and have weak health system structures and social protection networks, as well as poor human and infrastructural resources. One of the fundamental challenges of the Ebola outbreak is the stigmatization of the disease, and the discrimination faced by the families of victims, and survivors themselves. The Ebola outbreak is putting enormous strain on the general population, as fear and stress are fomenting unrest and mistrust. Long-term risks of PTSD and secondary trauma for health workers are also becoming serious concerns as the disease continues to spread across West Africa.

Partnering with the office of the First Lady of Sierra Leone and the Ministries of Health and Social Welfare, IsraAID is helping lead a national task force aimed at integrating psycho-social support into the health system by training health workers, social workers, security forces, service providers, and the general population. In 2014-15, IsraAID will send over 30 experts in PTSD prevention and stress management to West Africa.

There, Israeli professionals will conduct intensive training for local social workers, health workers, and other service providers to equip them with practical tools in stress management and trauma prevention techniques. The program will be based on IsraAID’s world-renown holistic approach developed and implemented after disasters in Haiti, Japan, South Sudan, Jordan, and other countries around the world.

The IsraAID Program

IsraAID’s mission is to meet the changing needs of populations as they move from crisis to reconstruction/rehabilitation, and eventually, to sustainable living. Operating in countries affected by war, natural disaster, acute poverty, and massive displacement, teams arrive during a crisis and work to facilitate a transition to long-term stability. Then, in partnership with local counterparts, they develop an exit strategy.

Since its inception in 2001, IsraAID has become synonymous with a rapid response to humanitarian crises. Its medical teams, search and rescue units, post-trauma experts, community specialists, and other professionals have led international responses in natural disasters and civil strife around the world. IsraAID’s mission has succeeded in alleviating suffering and rebuilding communities, and in doing so has positioned Israel as a serious player in the field of international aid.

After the initial emergency period, IsraAID shifts to long-term programs, all to accompany communities and governments as they strive to build a better tomorrow. IsraAID offers long-term training and support programs using Israel’s unique know-how in the fields of psycho-social support, education, agriculture, water and health. Today, IsraAID conducts on-going training programs in Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Haiti, Kenya, Jordan, and South Sudan.

IsraAID emergency missions also serve to maximize and showcase Israeli skills in search and rescue, emergency medical response, and trauma support—acquired as a result of Israel’s unfortunate security situation and now utilized to save lives worldwide. Very often IsraAID’s professionals find themselves the sole representatives of Israel providing much needed relief and support to effected populations around the world. Even unofficially, we see this as a calling to not only alleviate suffering but also to influence the discourse on Israel.

Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Less than four days after the devastating January 2010 earthquake, IsraAID’s Emergency Medical Team was already in the Haitian capital saving lives. Since then IsraAID has engaged in a plethora of integrated programs both in Port-au-Prince and in 3 rural villages around the Leogane area (the epicenter of the quake). To date, IsraAID’s efforts in Haiti have reached over 50,000 people through community outreach programs, operation of a medical clinic, providing economic empowerment opportunities for women, and teaching farmers basic agricultural techniques. In 2013, IsraAID launched a new program to combat increasing gender-based violence in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince by building the capacity and skills of numerous national agencies

Makens, the twenty-five-year-old leader of a youth group in Leogane, attests to the perils of life after the earthquake and the hope gained by participating in activities organized by IsraAID. He speaks of a post-earthquake transformation in the way people relate to one another and the need for Haitians to work together as a group rather than each person looking out for him or herself. Makens addresses the necessity for community-driven initiatives like those implemented by IsraAID in his town and for a greater personal accountability.

The lack of jobs and educational opportunities in Haiti has devastated this already poverty-stricken country. IsraAID helps to address these needs by providing Makens and members of the youth group with intensive agricultural courses accompanied by more than a year of practice in the fields. This initiative and the group’s motivation have sparked hope among devastated communities at the earthquake’s epicenter.

IsraAID’s youth activities are designed to combat prevailing youth delinquency, a by-product of the current lack of opportunity. Makens attests to the fact that most teenagers in the area spend their days doing nothing, with no aim or goal for their future. IsraAID together with young leaders like Makens strive to turn this situation around by providing tangible solutions for the future. Following the agricultural training, IsraAID has created a network between Makens’ group and other agricultural collectives in the aim of boosting opportunities and encouraging greater accountability between people towards an improved shared future in Haiti.

Dohuk, Kurdish Region of Iraq (KRI)

As the day begins to dispel the chill of the night, Shehab, 37, from Sinjar, joins the growing line of refugees and internally displaced people, excited at the prospect of finally getting some supplies to brave the bitter cold and relentless winter winds of the camp. The trucks finally arrive and IsraAID professionals begin to unload more than 3,000 winterized packages for distribution, the second of what is planned to be many more such caravans in the coming months.

Shehab and his family are among the more than 18,000 Yazidis now living in this camp in northern Iraq, after fleeing the horrors of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). “When Daesh (ISIL) entered Sinjar we fled to mountains for seven days and took refuge in a Yazidi Temple. We then found our way to this camp. We have been here for seven months. I am here with my wife and our two children—a boy one-and-a-half years old and a four month-old baby girl born in the camp. The life here is very hard; our children are traumatized by what they saw and experienced after Daesh (ISIL) attacked our home.”

Since January 2014, more than 2.1 million people have been displaced by the military atrocities of the Islamic State, bringing the total of people in the region needing humanitarian assistance to 5.2 million. The KRI alone has welcomed more than one million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees, but is hard pressed to meet their enormous humanitarian needs—especially during the trying winter months, when temperatures routinely drop below freezing.

“Inside the camp it’s very cold and we really need warm blankets,” says Naviah, also from Sinjar. “Kerosene heaters were distributed [but] many tents caught fire and people died as a result. We use one bathroom among eight families—there are too many people and not enough room or facilities for everyone. There is no school for the younger children.” Shehab adds, “Our main problem is carrying the water back to our tent—there is only one place in the camp to get water and it very far. We also need health training and facilities for our families. Many people have diseases and there is no medicine or doctors.”

For the lucky thousands waiting in line, the situation is about to improve. After a first humanitarian distribution in mid-October, IsraAID returned to the KRI in order to continue assisting Iraqi IDPs in need, delivering more than 3,000 winterized packages, including mattresses and blankets. “I really appreciate all your help…especially with your distribution of warm blankets for the winter,” says Naviah, as she returns home with her hands full.

IsraAID is already looking to the future, planning to scale up its operations in the KRI, expanding activities to include education projects to bring stability and safety to a population scarred by months of violence and chaos. A new educational project is in the final stages of development to take place in newly constructed schools. For Shehab, the future must be better. “Before ISIS attacked our home we were living safely and completely free to go about our lives. My hope for the future is to return to my home and live without fear. I hope my children to be able to sleep without fear.”


Trauma and conflict plague many regions of the world, with new emergencies constantly rearing their ugly heads. IsraAID teams, hand-in-hand with local communities, manage to offer hope to disaster-stricken communities in Sierra Leone, Haiti, and Iraq and in other countries where IsraAID teams operate. IsraAID’s goal is to provide people with the tools to regain control over their lives following the upheaval caused by disaster and conflict.

The fruits of IsraAID’s worldwide efforts are evident in numerous personal testimonies keep the dream of a better world alive. “I dream of a better and more prosperous Sierra Leone. Once we are Ebola-free, my colleagues and I can get back to school. Now I feel determined more than ever to contribute to the development of our country.” —Alimamy, 22 years old, Ebola Response 117 Operator.

Shachar Zahavi is the Founding Director of IsraAID. Yael Eshel is a Project Manager at IsraAID.