IsraAid to open first U.S. office in San Francisco

The 80 to 90 people gathered in a Danville community center on Oct. 30 were not the typical audience for an Israeli group’s meet-and-greet.

They were Muslims, and about half the women were wearing hijabs. Well-heeled, mostly in their 30s and early 40s, many worked in high-tech and knew the hosts, Zohreen and Mir Aamir of Danville, who had invited them to hear about the work being done with Muslim refugees in Europe by IsraAid, a Tel Aviv-based aid organization.

Mir, a bespectacled Pakistani American wearing a blue button-down shirt and gray trousers, works in marketing for a Silicon Valley company. Last summer, he and his wife grew increasingly alarmed by the millions of Muslim refugees fleeing war-torn Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, cramming onto overloaded, leaky lifeboats and washing up on the shores of Greek islands.

The couple wanted to help. “We wanted to go, and see, and feel it up close,” Mir told the audience. They wrote to a number of international aid organizations. None responded. Then a friend told them about IsraAid, an Israeli nongovernmental organization that sends rescue and relief teams to disaster zones all over the globe and is planning to open its first U.S. office in San Francisco.

IsraAid’s Yotam Polizer helps refugee girl to shore in Lesbos, Greece, in 2015. (Courtesy/IsraAid)

Last summer, the Aamirs and their three children spent three days at a refugee center in Berlin where IsraAid was providing much-needed trauma care to homeless and bereft refugees, those from Syria in particular.

“It was remarkable to see their work,” Mir said as his 13-year-old daughter showed the audience a video she had made to show her schoolmates. “It was the center’s one-year anniversary, and many of the refugees had been there since the beginning. They thought they’d be there for a month. These are educated people, like us in this room. They’ve been through such a long journey of hardship and suffering.”

Also addressing the crowd was Yotam Polizer, IsraAid’s 31-year-old global partnership director, who speaks widely about the organization’s work and tries to drum up volunteers and financial support.

“Whenever there’s a disaster, we try to go within the first 24 hours, to assess the needs,” he told the crowd.  “We have teams now in Haiti, helping after Hurricane Matthew. But the refugee crisis is so different. Every day, thousands of them arrive [on the Greek island of Lesbos.] They are greeted by the last people they expect to see — Israeli volunteers. Doctors and nurses, Jewish and Arab.”

Opening his arms to the crowd, he emphasized, “There are a lot of people here today from the Muslim community. We need your help.”

Polizer has been spending a lot of time in the Bay Area recently, to lay the groundwork for this month’s opening of IsraAid’s new San Francisco office, where a staff of three will recruit and coordinate volunteers to join its relief efforts around the world.

One of the most visible nongovernmental organizations in the fast-growing field of international disaster relief, IsraAid, founded in 2001, has sent more than 1,000 doctors, nurses, social workers and other trauma experts to crisis zones in 35 countries, by its own estimates touching the lives of some 1 million people in need, both in the hours after disaster strikes and continuing on for months or years as the stricken communities rebuild.

When a devastating earthquake and tsunami hit Japan in 2011, IsraAid was on the ground within four days, and is still there helping rebuild in 10 cities. During the 2014 Ebola crisis in Sierra Leone, IsraAid partnered with government efforts to provide post-traumatic stress disorder training to West African medical personnel dealing with the victims. From flooding in the Philippines to Syrian refugee camps in Greece and Germany, IsraAid has sent hundreds of its own professional staff and helped coordinate volunteer efforts, bringing much-needed succor to those who need it most.

The choice of San Francisco as the group’s first North American outpost was no accident, Polizer said.

There’s a lot of interest among young Bay Area Jews in social justice work, he points out. More than 65 local volunteers have joined IsraAid relief teams working with Syrian refugees in Greek island camps just this past year, he noted.

“Last November I gave a talk at Stanford, and two students came up to me afterwards saying they wanted to volunteer with us in Greece,” he told J. “Usually we take professionals — nurses, doctors, engineers — but in the refugee camps we need people to pull refugees off the boats.”

And it wasn’t just those two students, but their mothers as well, who joined IsraAid teams in Greece. They shared their experiences on Facebook, and interest snowballed — more people from the Bay Area volunteered, Polizer was invited to speak in other local venues and the Bay Area-based Koret Foundation stepped in as a major funder four months ago.

“They realized this is a great way to get to young unaffiliated Jews,” Polizer explained. “Humanitarian work speaks to them. It’s a way to reconnect them to their Jewish identity and to Israel. They want to join, and it makes them proud of Israel.”

“Israel is more than just a conversation about borders, the occupied territories and the haredim,” agreed Jeff Farber, CEO of the Koret Foundation. “The Jewish people are there [offering aid and support] in all these countries when these terrible things happen, and how many people hear about it? This is helping the most vulnerable at the most critical time in their existence, whether it be a hurricane or a terrorist attack.”

The San Francisco office will enable IsraAid staff to reach out more effectively to recruit Bay Area volunteers, Polizer said, and will also give the group access to Silicon Valley companies, many of which want to get more involved in social justice work but don’t always know how.

“Many of them have social action departments, but not the actual capability to bring technological solutions to humanitarian problems,” he said.

IsraAid has tripled its staff since 2013. Nearly 40 percent of the organization’s funding comes from UNICEF, Polizer said, giving the lie to the long-standing (and ill-founded, he noted) reputation that UNICEF has for being anti-Israel (Israel rejoined the agency’s executive board in 2013 after a 40-year hiatus).

Because their cause is non-partisan, Polizer said IsraAid can reach out to groups that don’t often have the opportunity to get involved in Jewish or Israeli organizations — like the Muslim crowd in that Danville community center. “It’s a great opportunity for building bridges,” he says.

Still, Polizer was quick to emphasize the pride he feels in the organization’s roots as a Jewish and an Israel-based humanitarian organization.

“We are very proud of our Israeli identity,” he said. “People on the left and the right ask me why aren’t we more involved in Israeli problems. I say, we are supporting Israel by building these partnerships with non-typical allies, like the United Nations.”

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Sue Fishkoff

Sue Fishkoff is the editor emerita of J. She can be reached at [email protected].