A boy displaced by fighting in South Sudan arrives in Lamwo on April 5. Photo by James Akena/Reuters

A Passover without sustenance in South Sudan

Each year, we gather with family and friends for our Passover seder. We lift the matzo and remember how we were once slaves in the land of Egypt. We talk about the blood, locusts, boils, hail and so on, then we dig in to our “festive meal.” We remember, and then we eat. How lucky are we?

This year at Jewish World Watch (jww.org) — the anti-genocide organization where I serve — we are going beyond remembering the traditional Exodus story of the Hebrew slaves. Our Passover conversation also remembers the fleeing, homeless refugees and displaced people worldwide whose number, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), has officially topped 65 million. They, too, are innocent people who’ve lost their homes and their livelihoods through violence perpetrated, in many cases, by outright hostility from their own governments.

Bombs, not hail, have fallen from the skies over Syria and in the Nuba Mountains of Sudan. Deliberate acts of arson, not frogs, have destroyed the farms of peace-loving South Sudanese. And rampant sexual violence against women and children — there are too many places to name where that behavior is just a fact of life.

What do these stories have to do with Passover? For those who survive the modern-day plagues to flee, these are their Passover stories. We need alter our haggadah only slightly to see the parallels: We must remember that we were once refugees from the land of Egypt. We fled from the torment of a greedy and vicious head of state — Pharaoh —  who profited from our labor and tortured us because we were ethnically different, and because we sought freedom from his tyranny.

But in our flight, we had an extraordinary asset: Moses, a stalwart, though initially unlikely, leader who stood up for our rights and dignity. An inspirational, albeit flawed, figure who tried to advocate peacefully before leading us out of bondage.

And we had matzo. As flat and tasteless as it still may seem, we brought it with us as sustenance as we headed to the desert where, unbelievably, we were gifted with the manna that kept us alive.

We must ask ourselves: Who is Moses for today’s refugees?

We must ask ourselves: Who is Moses for today’s refugees? And where is the matzo — and the manna — for the famine-afflicted people attempting to find food for their children and themselves in civil war-infested South Sudan? I call out South Sudan, in particular, because it is one of the countries in which Jewish World Watch has long invested. So, at our Passover meal, we will remember that, despite the efforts of Jewish World Watch and many other international nongovernmental organizations, innocent people in South Sudan, the world’s youngest country, are dying of starvation because of a senseless civil war. 

The United Nations reports that more than half the population is in need of humanitarian assistance and protection, with 1 million people at risk of famine. And just two years after the country became an independent nation, 1.9 million people in South Sudan have become internally displaced. Another 1.6 million people have exited its borders as refugees. Many of those refugees are children orphaned by the civil war.

Who will be Moses for the people of South Sudan? Who will save lives by offering support and sustenance? It’s up to you and me to help fill in the gap. Jewish World Watch is embarking on an emergency campaign to help respond to this crisis. 

Most of all, we must recognize that the humanitarian crisis will end only when South Sudan’s leaders are forced to end the civil war and address the corruption, poor governance and fractures within the ruling Sudan People’s Liberation Movement. A united effort to put pressure on the key actors and their warring factions in the conflict must come from all of us, and from the United Nations, the African Union and the United States.

We cannot stand idly by.

SUSAN FREUDENHEIM is executive director of Jewish World Watch.

Up to 500 migrants may have drowned in Mediterranean tragedy

Up to 500 migrants might have drowned in the Mediterranean last week when human traffickers crammed people onto an already overcrowded ship, causing it to sink, the U.N. refugee agency said on Wednesday.

If confirmed, it would be the worst such tragedy in 12 months and bring the total number of migrant drownings in the southern Mediterranean to nearly 800 so far this year.

The UNHCR agency said 37 men, three women and a three-year-old child had survived the disaster after being rescued by a merchant ship. The group, which was brought to Greece on April 16, included Somalis, Ethiopians, Egyptians and one Sudanese.

The survivors recounted that they had been among 100 to 200 people who had set sail from Libya last week headed for Italy. After several hours at sea, the traffickers tried to move them onto a bigger ship that was already packed with migrants.

This ship sank before the survivors could board it.

An Ethiopian man named Mohamed told the International Organization for Migration (IOM) that his wife, two-month-old child and brother-in-law had died in the sinking.

“The boat was going down, down. All the people died in a matter of minutes. After the shipwreck we were drifted at sea for a few days, without food, without anything,” the IOM quoted him as saying.

UNHCR spokesperson William Spindler said the eyewitnesses estimated that up to 500 people might have perished.

“We don't know exactly how many were there on that boat and they have now disappeared from the face of the earth,” he told Reuters television said. “This is another example of what is happening almost in a daily basis in the Mediterranean.”

The Somali government said on Monday that it believed that some 200 of the dead were from Somalia. It also said that the capsized boat had originally set sail from Egypt.

News of the disaster emerged on the first anniversary of one of the worst disasters in the Mediterranean, when an estimated 800 migrants drowned off the Libyan coast after the fishing boat they were sailing in collided with a mercantile vessel that had been attempting to rescue them.

Some 150,000 migrants reached Italy by boat in 2015, the vast majority sailing from Libya. So far this year, about 25,000 migrants have arrived, an increase of 4.7 percent over the same period last year, according to Interior Ministry data.

The Arab-Israeli conflict: Time to move on

This article originally appeared on Ynetnews.com

As a result of the creation of the State of Israel in 1948, roughly 800,000 Jews were expelled from various Arab countries in which they had been living for generations. 

Consequently, they were forced, like millions of other refugees throughout the 20th century, to resettle elsewhere. Although certainly not an easy task, eventually both the initial refugees and their descendants were able to let go of the past and move on with their lives.

Unlike the Jewish refugees from Arab countries, the story of the roughly 500,000 Arab refugees created by Israel’s War of Independence has been vastly different. Rather than being encouraged to resettle elsewhere, they were turned into permanent refugees to be used as a political tool against Israel. For this purpose, a special UN agency, the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), was created in 1950 for the sole intent of maintaining, as opposed to resettling, the original refugees. 

Even today, nearly seventy years later, UNRWA continues with this policy unabashedly. As they boldly state on their site “We are committed to fostering the human development of Palestine refugees by helping them to acquire knowledge and skills, lead long and healthy lives, achieve decent standards of living and enjoy human rights to the fullest possible extent.” Noticeably absent from this list is any attempt to help the refugees restart their lives in another place.

The exact opposite is the case for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), an agency that was also established in 1950 and which deals with every other other refugee population in the world. According to its site, “The agency is mandated to lead and co-ordinate international action to protect refugees and resolve refugee problems worldwide.”

In addition, it “strives to ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another state, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.” In other words, the emphasis is on problem resolution, a point that is proudly stated on its site: “Since 1950, the agency has helped tens of millions of people restart their lives.” 

Thus, while UNHCR is constantly trying to lower the number of refugees in the world, UNRWA is actually working in the opposite direction. By an absurd policy that is unique to UNRWA and which states that “the descendants of Palestine refugee males, including legally adopted children, are also eligible for registration.” UNRWA has succeeded in turning the original half million into five million and counting.

In addition to the detrimental policies of UNRWA, which have deliberately kept the refugee issue alive for years, the refugees themselves—both the originals and their descendants—as well as the other Arabs living in Judea and Samaria, have been led to believe that eventually they would receive their own country somewhere west of the Jordan River. By some, they were told the new country would include their former homes in Haifa and Jerusalem, while by others they were promised a more modest state side by side with a tiny Jewish one. Different variations of these assurances have repeatedly been made to them over the years by assorted Arab leaders, western/international leaders and even some Israeli leaders.

Hence although the Arabs themselves, refugee or non-refugee, are partly to blame for not letting go of the past and simply moving on with their lives, it’s obvious that their permanent statelessness is also due to the fact that they’ve been a pawn in a much larger game.

What’s more, the seemingly endless bloody conflict between Jews and Arabs is the direct result of intentionally keeping this issue alive. This is by far the most tragic aspect of all the false promises and misleading UN policies. Nevertheless and despite the fact that at the moment there appears to be no end in sight to the conflict, something must be done since Israel cannot rule forever over another population with roadblocks and security checks and the Arabs cannot live eternally in a state of limbo.

Therefore, in order to finally break this vicious cycle and to allow everyone to move on with their lives, some truths must be faced. For starters, despite all the promises that have been made it’s clear to nearly everyone today that Israel cannot allow for the creation of an Arab state in any shape or size west of the Jordan River since such an entity would pose an existential threat to the very existence of the Jewish state. Thus, despite all the headlines that the two-state solution receives, practically speaking it’s a non-starter. More than twenty-two years of the failed Oslo Process and all the accompanying wars and terrorist attacks, as well as the still unfolding events of the “Arab Spring”, makes this point self-evident.

Equally suicidal for Israel is the granting of citizenship to another one or two million Arabs living in Judea and Samaria – many of whom consider Israel an enemy state – as part of any future process of Israel declaring sovereignty over these areas. The demographic and economic problems of such an endeavor, combined with the obvious security problem of absorbing a large hostile population, would surely overwhelm the Jewish state.

The only solution therefore, and by far the most humane one, is to rectify the injustice that was done to the Arabs by both the negligent polices of UNRWA and by years of being misled by false promises of statehood west of the Jordan River. Practically speaking, the Arabs need to be financially compensated and helped to resettle elsewhere, as the Jews from Arab countries did seventy years ago and as millions of refugees have done over the course of the last one hundred years as a result of various wars and conflicts. The new host country could be neighboring Jordan or another Arab country or wherever as long as it’s part of an international agreement. Such an agreement would also need to allow Israel to fortify its long-term security by extending Israeli sovereignty up to the natural border of the Jordan River.

Although such a suggestion may sound harsh to some people, the truth is it is the only way to resolve the one hundred year conflict and to stop the pointless and never-ending bloodshed between Jews and Arabs. Moreover, the idea of financially compensating the Arabs and helping them to resettle elsewhere as part of an international agreement is the only solution that will both guarantee the continued existence of the world’s only Jewish state as well as enable the Arabs to escape their prison of false promises and to finally start building normal productive lives. For the well-being of both Jews and Arabs, the time has come to embrace the only solution that is truly capable of ending the conflict.

Yoel Meltzer, a freelance writer living in Jerusalem, has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from New York University. He can be contacted via yoelmeltzer.com .

The real victims of Syrian migrants

We’ve all heard the fear mongering about how Syrian refugees are mostly men — which somehow makes them more susceptible to becoming terrorists, and therefore dangerous to the West.

“You look at the migration, it’s young, strong men,” Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump told Yahoo last November. “We cannot take a chance that the people coming over here are going to be ISIS-affiliated.” 

Speaking to Fox News host Sean Hannity, Trump further conveyed his distrust of his gender: “Where are the women? Where are the children? We’re taking in people we have no idea who they are. … So I think … you know, it could very well be the ultimate Trojan horse.”

This sort of talk got some people very excited, to the point where the State Department had to address the issue during a November briefing on refugee screening and admissions. At that briefing, Fox News correspondent William La Jeunesse asked for a demographic breakdown of all Syrian refugees already admitted to the U.S. 

“Half of the Syrian refugees brought to the U.S. so far have been children, and a quarter are adults over 60,” a senior administration official responded. The official continued, rather deliberately: “And I think you will have heard that only two percent are single males of combat age. So … there’s slightly more [men] … it’s roughly 50-50 men and women, slightly more men I would say, but not — not a lot more men.”

But if we look at Europe, where perhaps the larger population of migrants is more representative, we would see the gender disparity that politicians were talking about. Of the roughly 1 million refugees who arrived in Europe by sea in 2015 — mostly from Syria, but also from Afghanistan, Iraq and a handful of other “refugee-producing countries” — about 25 percent were children, 17 percent women and 58 percent men, according to figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). I never thought I’d say this, but, in this one area, it seems Trump got his facts right. 

However, I part company with the calculus behind The Hair in this: So far, the most urgent threat Syrian migrant men pose is to their own women.

Based on interviews with dozens of migrant women at refugee shelters in Germany, The New York Times reported that the perils of the already hazardous refugee flight “are amplified for women.” 

When one husband ran out of money to pay the smugglers transporting his family, he offered his 30-year-old wife, a mother of four, as payment instead. “For three months, she was raped almost daily to earn her family’s onward journey,” the Times reported. Another woman, Samar, who said she had worked for the Syrian Finance Ministry, said, “Everybody knows there are two ways of paying the smugglers – [w]ith money or with your body.”

Another woman interviewed said she stopped washing during her journey and began dressing as a boy in order to fend off unwanted attention and aggression. Even in Europe, within the relative safety of refugee shelters, many women still find themselves feeling vulnerable or in danger; several reported pushing cupboards in front of their bedroom doors at night.

Sexual assault among migrants is an under-reported phenomenon, and it isn’t happening only among those fleeing the Middle East. In 2014, National Public Radio (NPR) reported on the widespread problem of sexual assault among female Mexican migrants while crossing the border into the United States. Again, here, women often were forced to pay smugglers with their bodies, and some wound up captives, sex slaves or prostitutes. Sexual assault is so prevalent among female migrants entering the U.S., many women actually expect to be raped or assaulted en route, and come prepared for the journey with birth control and condoms to at least minimize the risks of pregnancy and the spread of disease.

“When a woman is raped in remote stretches of the border region, it almost always goes unpunished,” NPR reported. The same could be said of the Syrian migrants in Europe — so many are in transition, living in temporary shelters, not knowing the local language and often unaware of civil protections. What recourse do women in these positions really have?

It is also worth asking: Do men who feel at ease abusing their wives or assaulting other women and girls become more likely to commit other types of violent crime? I like to think one of the best measures of a healthy society is how it treats its women.

But when society fails, Hollywood sometimes offers a good alternative. 

In the movie “Ex Machina,” about a tech billionaire who uses his fortune to create artificial intelligence, we meet Ava, a dream-droid who lives under the lock-and-key of her brilliant but demented creator. Alone in his remote, wooded compound, the god-like Nathan decides to sexualize his femme-bots — both so that he can “use” them, and so that they can elicit feelings from humans beings — a sign, Nathan believes, of their true power and intelligence. 

But as it turns out, female dream-droids are not very docile. The beautiful bot Ava, played by Alicia Vikander, whose performance could earn her a Golden Globe on Sunday, tires of the male-run prison in which she is tightly controlled and terribly confined. Her “intelligence” demands her autonomy. Ava soon outsmarts the men holding her captive, killing one and entrapping another, because she knows the unequal origins of her existence will always restrict her. She doesn’t want rescue; she wants liberation.

“Almost all men in the world are bad,” is the sad conclusion of the Syrian refugee and mother, Samar. 

It is also the conclusion of “Ex Machina.” Yet Ava is a heroine who needs no prince to save her. From slavery to self-determination, she saves herself. 

Welcome to the female liberation story of the future.

Securing Syrian refugees’ future tied to Israel’s security

I have visited Israel many times in my life, but my most recent trip will remain seared into my memory forever. On a two-week trip to Israel and the West Bank, I saw many incredible sights. In Israel, the triumphs of the “startup nation” are miraculous and ever-present, while on the Palestinian side of the Green Line the new city of Rawabi is literally rising out of the desert hills.

But what shocked me most was the nightmare occurring just miles over the border. It was in Jordan, in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador to Jordan Stuart Jones and United Nations Refugee Agency/United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Representative Andrew Harper, where we caught a glimpse into the humanitarian tragedy of the Syrian refugee crisis. After that visit, I knew I had no choice but to cry out about the refugees’ plight and urge our community and government to act, if not out of concern for the refugees themselves, then at least because anything that destabilizes Jordan could have grave repercussions for Israel.

In Amman, we visited a UNHCR registration services site. The monumental task of registering the refugees and ensuring their safety and health falls largely to the UNHCR, working in coordination with the Jordanian government. The UNHCR ensures that refugees are properly registered, have access to protection, legal assistance, shelter, food, potable water, medical care, education and psychosocial support. Watching innocent children playing on a crowded climbing tower and swing set while their mothers were being interviewed and arranging for services was, simply put, heartbreaking.

As of June 8, 2014, there were more than 597,000 Syrian refugees in Jordan. More than half are under the age of 17. And, new refugees are currently crossing the border from Syria into northeast Jordan at a rate of 2,000 to 3,000 per day. Imagine the United States suddenly absorbing 31 million people over a three-year period and you might begin to understand the scope of this crisis. And, there are dozens of challenges that extend beyond the need to provide food and shelter to the refugees.

Jordanian schools are struggling to integrate thousands of children despite vast cultural differences. Refugees living within and outside of refugee camps strain the Jordanian economy, inflating prices and depressing wages. As these problems grow, so does resentment of refugees among Jordanian citizens.

The list of global humanitarian tragedies is long, but the Syrian crisis ranks right up there at the top. And for those who care about Israel’s security, the situation in Jordan looks especially dire. Israel already has to worry about civil war and chemical weapons use by Syria, and political upheaval and uncertainty in Egypt. The last thing Israel needs is its one stable neighbor collapsing under the weight of this refugee crisis.  

Given that the civil war in Syria is not likely to end any time soon, we who love and support Israel owe it to ourselves to do something — and, fortunately, there are a number of steps we can take in our communities that can help make a difference. We can encourage philanthropists who support Israel to dig deeply into their pockets to offer direct assistance to UNHCR in Jordan. We can ask manufacturers here in the U.S. to donate playground equipment and small toys to the Syrians living in Jordan’s refugee camps. And, we can urge lawmakers on Capitol Hill to strengthen aid and support to the Jordanian government.

We know from our tradition, in Talmud Sanhedrin 37a, “Whoever saves a life, it’s considered as if you saved the whole world.”

This teaching was essentially the message we got from UNHCR’s Harper who said that even a small act like helping to provide families with toiletry kits containing soap, shampoo, toothbrushes and toothpaste could make a significant difference to public health in the camps. Let’s empower him with the resources he needs to do his job and impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of Syrians. That humanitarian aid could be crucial to ensuring Israel’s security, as well.

Janet Halbert is a Los Angeles-area CPA who specializes in providing practical problem-solving services to midsized companies and nonprofit organizations. A member of J Street’s national leadership circle, she participated in J Street’s congressional and leadership mission to the region in May.

The forgotten refugees of Ghouta, Syria

The most infamous attack over two-and-a-half years of civil war in Syria – a silent sarin gassing in the city of Ghouta that killed more than 1,500 and sent allied countries to the brink of world war – came in the middle of the night.

When I woke up, I found that everyone in my neighborhood had died,” said Syrian refugee Alia Wahban, 18, as she tried to warm the hands of her wailing 8-month-old. “Everyone was on the ground, in the street. We brought water to put on their faces, but they didn’t wake up.”

Wahban knew she had to get out of Syria. So she made her way through the Syrian desert with the help of the Free Syrian Army, praying she wouldn’t be stopped at a military checkpoint, where she feared Hezbollah operatives might rape her – or, worse, kill her son.

A few months later, safe yet starving in a makeshift camp in Jordan, Wahban spoke of the hard new reality she faces as a refugee. A single light bulb – dangling from a cord in the center of her United Nations tent, sucking electricity from a nearby Jordanian home – gave dim shape to the two dozen people huddled alongside Wahban. They were perched along a ring of thin sleeping mats that lined the tent, drinking tiny cups of tea and batting at the flies that had taken refuge there, as well.

“We expect to die this winter,” said Shadua al-Hamdan, 40, a mother of four who fled Ghouta seven months ago, just missing the chemical-weapons attack. (Many of her friends and relatives back home, however, didn’t make it.)

Outside, as if on cue, thunder growled across the late November sky, announcing the second rainfall of winter. It was an ominous reminder of the icy storms to come, which meteorologists predict will be some of the worst to hit Jordan in decades.

[Related: Fifteen-year-old Amira al-Hamed, standing, and her little sister are living in a makeshift camp on the outskirts of Mafraq. “There are no clothes, no water, no blankets,” she said. “It's very cold at night. … Please send the message to the world to send winter stuff to us.” Photo by Simone Wilson

Rabeit Na’eam nearly doubled in size following the chemical-weapons attack in Ghouta: The camp’s total population now sits at about 300 families, or 1,500 people, according to al-Khaldi. “The main worry for me now is if these organizations stop giving me aid for the camp, [because then] I cannot give any aid to the refugees in the camp,” he said in his office, lined in ornate gold wallpaper and hung with portraits of the Jordanian royal family.

Back at camp, the refugees are becoming anxious. “When it rains, the tent leaks and floods,” said al-Hamdan, mother of four. Her teeth were yellowed, and some rhinestones had flaked off the geometric pattern running down her abaya. “The water also comes up from the ground.”

Al-Hamdan turned from the visiting journalist to the accompanying JRO volunteer, a Syrian refugee himself, and grilled him about when she would receive a caravan to replace her tent.

The JRO volunteer, a friendly twenty-something with a buzz cut and a puffy thermal vest, pulled up a photo on his smartphone of the typical refugee caravan — a small rectangle, five meters by three meters, with double-paneled walls for insulation. “Very nice,” he said.

“Everybody wants a caravan,” said a spokesperson for UNHCR who wished not to be identified by name. “It’s a way of having a roof — literally a roof — over your head. You can lock your door. You can stand up. It’s also raised a little bit from the ground. And it certainly provides, on a psychological level, a sense of more protection.”

JRO director Al-Khaldi said the Rabeit Na’eam camp is currently populated by 300 tents and 20 caravans; however, refugees at the camp told the Journal that none of them had yet received a caravan.

Al-Khaldi also claimed the UNHCR originally promised to help with the camp, but that “the promises ran out.” However, the UNHCR spokesperson said she had never heard of the Rabeit Na’eam camp, nor its parent organization. “There are hundreds of informal settlements, ranging from a few tents to larger numbers,” she said in an email. “It doesn’t help us when people are not in an official camp setting, as they don’t have access to water, to food and non-food items, kitchens, medical clinics, schools, and to other assistance the humanitarian community provides.

“We do make every effort to support all Syrians in need, however the needs are so enormous, that it can be incredibly challenging to identify everyone,” she said.

At the UNHCR’s massive Za’atari refugee camp, 20 minutes east — whose 80,000 residents come mainly from the Syrian city of Daraa — all but 4,000 families live in caravans, and public restrooms dot the city grid. Some enterprising refugees even steal scraps to build their own private stalls. (“Have they stolen it, or have they privatized it?” asked the UNHCR’s Kilian Kleinschmidt in a YouTube documentary on the camp. “I think they privatized it.”)

Much has been written and observed about Za’atari, a 1.3-square-mile refugee haven equipped with schools, medical tents and marketplaces. Its internal issues are often less aid-related and more city-related: As the fourth largest “city” in Jordan, it sees theft, violence, contagious diseases, in-fighting between communities and other problems that would arise in any cluster of 80,000 people fenced into rows of caravans in the ruthlessly hot-and-cold desert.

“Although a camp situation is not the most desirable, at least we can support them,” said the UNHCR spokesperson.

Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

In Arabic, Rabeit Na’eam means a desert oasis — a green “paradise” where water springs from the ground, according to a young Jordanian entrepreneur who helped translate at the camp.

The irony of this did not escape him. Water is scarce at the Rabeit Na’eam refugee camp, and the terrain harsh. One small boy, around 4 years old, padded over the desert rocks in bare feet, his dark toes coated in a layer of white-orange dust.

To go to the bathroom, al-Hamdan explained, she and the other Ghouta escapees must dig holes in the wet ground — which is especially difficult, and humiliating, for the women.

“In Syria, I had a safe life. I was in school, in the sixth grade,” said Amira al-Hamed, a shy 15-year-old girl living at Rabeit Na’eam with her mother and little sister. “I was playing every day with my friends in my neighborhood. My parents owned a house.”

But after Syrian forces destroyed the family home, al-Hamed, her mother and her sister were forced to leave Ghouta and camp Bedouin-style near the Syrian-Jordanian border for a few months. (Her father stayed behind.) Then, in October, they crossed the border into Jordan, where Jordanian soldiers delivered them straight to Za’atari.

However, because members of their extended family were already living at Rabeit Na’eam, they requested to be transferred.

Now, daily life is bleak. “There is no work or school for me. I just sit in the tent and sleep,” the 15-year-old said.

Although al-Hamed said she wishes she had a caravan like the ones she saw at Za’atari, the bigger camp frightened her: “There are many problems there, and violence,” she said. “It’s a dangerous situation. Also, I have relatives here.”

The No. 1 priority for the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam is to live alongside familiar faces from their old neighborhood, according to JRO Director al-Khaldi. “You can see that everyone knows everyone, and the kids play with each other, and everything is OK,” he said. “All of them come from the same family, so no problems will happen.”

The UNHCR spokesperson said another reason for avoiding Za’atari is that refugees aren’t allowed to leave or find work. Despite the Jordanian government’s ban on hiring Syrian refugees, “we do often find that those outside the camp are working informally, on farms for example,” she said. (A hotel manager in nearby Irbid, Jordan, confirmed this, saying he regularly hired Syrian men to work on his house in the cover of night, before inspectors came around at dawn.)

But the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam pay a price for their freedom. “There are no bathrooms here, and no water,” said al-Hamdan. “There are not enough blankets and clothes for the winter. There are no heaters, and no wood to make a fire. There is nowhere to buy bread. There is no money.”

Like most refugees in Jordan, the Ghouta natives at Rabeit Na’eam receive a limited ration of food coupons from the World Food Programme (WFP). But their remote location makes it more difficult for them to use the credit.

Most days, the refugees said, they eat only rice.

Asked what he does for fun, a 12-year-old boy named Hamed said he plays football all day on the desert flats. “But in the winter,” he said, “I’ll just sleep.”

The shelters at Rabeit Na’eam, which sleep around 12 to a room, are made from a patchwork of UNHCR tents and other assorted tarps and canvases. Donated rugs line the inside. Photo by Simone Wilson

As the sun set at Rabeit Na’eam, leaving behind a chill that cut to the bone, the lights of a Syrian border town blinked in the distance, beyond the tents.

“When Obama made the decision to go to Syria, I was very happy,” said al-Hamdan. “But now I think Obama supports Bashar [al-Assad].” A 70-year-old woman with dark, leathery skin who appeared to be the tent’s communal grandmother chimed in. “I thought America would help the Syrian people, but they didn’t,” she said, raising her voice to a shout. “If Obama wanted, he could help us. He doesn’t want to help us.”

The Ghouta survivors stressed that August’s infamous chemical-weapons attack, which they all blamed on Assad, was only one of thousands of assaults that have devastated their homeland. “The helicopters shot my house and my house broke down,” said Mohammad al-Ahmed, 35, a second cousin of al-Hamdan whose red-and-white keffiyeh was secured to his head with a circle of black rope. He crunched a string of yellow beads compulsively in his hand as he described hearing the helicopters overhead, running out of his house and watching as it was bombed to nothing. The same blast killed 13 of his neighbors, including a two-day-old infant.

On his flip phone, Al-Ahmed looked through photos of two happy memories at Rabeit Na’eam: The first, when the camp was gifted an entire sheep to kill and eat at Ramadan, and the second, when Patch Adams came to visit, dancing around in a red clown nose and stuffing kids into his signature pair of giant underwear. Cracks of laughter broke the musty hush in the tent as the refugees told stories about Adams’ visit.

But they can never forget the biting realities unfolding in their hometown, and their new temporary home, for long. Al-Ahmed said his brother recently told him over the phone that the Syrian government is surrounding Ghouta, blocking civilians from leaving the city and barring any food from entering.

A young girl named Noor said her father and her brother, too, are still trapped in Ghouta. “She cries every day and asks when her dad will come,” al-Ahmed said, his hand on the girl’s shoulder. As he said it, tears welled up again in Noor’s eyes. A pickup truck full of whooping Jordanian teenagers roared by on a road that cuts through the camp.

“I hope my father will be able to come here soon,” Noor said, hugging herself from the cold.


To support the refugees at Rabeit Na’eam and help keep them warm through the winter, monetary donations can be made to the Jordan Relief Organization through the following bank account: Arab Islamic Bank, account number 1060-11065-505, swift code iibajoam200. The most-needed items are currently blankets ($18 each), heaters plus bottles of gas ($141 each) and caravans ($2,260).

Israelis helping Syrian refugees in Jordan: Balancing aid and diplomacy

Mafraq is a single-story city in the desert flats of northern Jordan, built in beige and white, spiked with mosques and dotted with chalky vacant lots that suffice as soccer courts. The pores and meridians of Mafraq’s streets are clogged with bits of trash — snack baggies, mini coffee cups, old shoes, soda bottles, all kinds of plastic — that cling together in odd, twisty shapes, little trash monsters soggy with winter’s first rain.

This city of around 60,000, among Jordan’s most impoverished, has doubled in size over the past year: Mafraq is now half Jordanian, half Syrian. As the closest city to the Nasib-Jaber border crossing between Jordan and Syria, it has become a refuge for a tidal wave of people fleeing the civil war in Syria, the No. 1 absorber of refugees (per capita) in a nation that has absorbed almost a million — driving up the price of food and water and overcrowding the local housing market.

“All the people in the streets are Syrian,” said Ali Shdaifat, head of the Jordan National Red Crescent Society branch in Mafraq. He said he has seen as many as 40 refugees stuffed into a two-bedroom apartment. Rent for one such apartment has gone from about $150 to $300 per month due to refugee demand, said Mohammad al-Khaldi, another local aid organizer.

The refugees in and around Mafraq are also some of the neediest in Jordan. Unlike at Za’atari, the famous United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) refugee camp taking root 20 minutes east — a sprawling caravan city with over 80,000 residents who at least have access to three schools and 12 medical tents — the urban refugees of Mafraq and those camping on its outskirts aren’t always sure where their next meal will come from or how they’ll keep warm through the freezing desert winter. “Most of our refugees, up to 80 percent, are outside of the camp. They’re living in shacks,” said Aoife McDonnell, a cheery Irish external relations officer for UNHCR. She pulled on a purple fleece as the wind whipped through the UNHCR office trailers at Za’atari. “For me, it’s upsetting. I visited people in warehouses, with washing lines hung across the middle, splitting the warehouse into three, with UNHCR blankets thrown over to create privacy. … They’re largely an invisible population.” 


Although the Syrian refugees camping outside the UNHCR’s Za’atari camp are using UNHCR tents, they don’t have access to the steady distributions of food and water available at Za’atari. And their tents, unlike the weatherproof caravans at Za’atari, become inundated with rainwater in the winter. Photo by Simone Wilson

It probably would have been more efficient to purchase the aid items locally in Jordan, the Christian organizer said, where the economy is buckling under the refugee influx and could use the boost. But according to all involved, there was a personal touch to the Hand in Hand mission that went beyond prepackaged aid kits.

“All the items came from somewhere,” Melanie said. The refugees “could choose clothes and know that a different child wore it and gave it to them. Every time I packed something, I thought, ‘Oh, somebody’s going to love this.’ ”

To this day, the Jordanian NGO that helped distribute Hand in Hand’s careful load at its stone building in Mafraq denies it ever collaborated with Israelis. “The clothes weren’t from Israel, they were from America,” the organization’s head claimed.

Melanie launched Hand in Hand in 2012 when she started to see photos on the Internet of shivering, starving Syrian refugees who had fled their bombed-out cities for nearby nations. It made her sick to know such mass suffering existed so close to home.

“It looked to me absurd that all they need is blankets and coats — and as the next-closest country, it seemed very simple for me to do,” she said.

At that point, no Syrians had yet been smuggled across the Israel-Syria border to be treated by Israeli doctors, and Melanie couldn’t find any press coverage online showing other Israeli aid efforts. She thought no one in Israel was helping the Syrian refugees. “I was really ashamed for my country,” she said.

Then Melanie got a call from Gal Lusky, director of the NGO Israeli Flying Aid, which  had been quietly delivering aid to Syrians since early 2012. Its motto: “Nobody asks permission to kill; we don’t ask permission to save lives.”

Said Melanie: “I was so relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one.”

Gal: The Masked Hero

Aside from a September trip to Los Angeles, in the course of which Lusky talked about Israeli Flying Aid’s mission to Syria on “Good Day LA,” spoke at the Beverly Hills Temple of the Arts under her real name and, beforehand, did an interview with Jewish Journal president and columnist David Suissa, she has shielded her organization from press. An extremely protective, understandably paranoid aid veteran who must maintain good relations with Syrian rebel commanders and the like to continue delivering aid, Lusky declined to speak again to the Journal unless her name, the name of her organization and the locations she has visited be omitted from the article.

“She is the most important player here, by far,” Boms said. 

Lusky prioritizes covert, often risky aid delivery in the region, including inside Syria — and to avoid detection, must take a back-roads approach.

Within Boms’ theory that there are two distinct types of Israeli aid delivery — humanitarian assistance and humanitarian diplomacy — Lusky has committed herself wholly to the former. “Nobody knows mostly where we come from, and that allows us to work safely,” she told “Good Day LA” host Steve Edwards. (However, she added that, sometimes, “Before we leave, when we feel safe enough, we allow the locals to know” that the aid came from Israel — to mixed reactions.)

“Why were you more scared of this [interview] than going into those areas?” host Edwards asked the visibly nervous Lusky. “Because I’m fully covered in those areas!” she answered, apparently in reference to the hijab she has been known to wear in the field.

As secretive as she is, Lusky has also taken some sporadic PR risks in her efforts to improve Israeli-Syrian relations. At last summer’s Israeli Presidential Conference in Jerusalem, she played an audio recording of a Syrian opposition leader sending his thanks to Israeli President Shimon Peres. “May God bless you and help you with the good deeds you are doing to achieve this new Middle East,” the message said.

There are two major NGOs in Israel that deliver aid to outside countries: IsraAID, run by Shachar Zahavi, and Israeli Flying Aid, run by Lusky. Both organizations have responded to myriad disasters around the world, including in Haiti, Japan and the Philippines — although Israeli Flying Aid chooses to focus on countries that lack diplomatic relations with Israel.

IsraAID is far bolder when it comes to press. Its name and the names of its volunteers are not kept under wraps, and various reporters have accompanied the organization on missions to Jordan. Israeli newspapers have run uncensored photos of the smiling Syrians on the receiving end, hauling IsraAID’s signature purple or yellow aid bags back to their tents.

The same Christian organization that helped Hand in Hand has covered for IsraAID on all six of its trips to Jordan this year. The Christian aid leader said she was deeply moved by some refugees’ reactions to finding out the help comes from Israel: “One woman found out they were Jewish and said, ‘Oh, my goodness. You have come to help me, and my own government is trying to kill me.’ ”

In total, IsraAID has delivered $100,000 worth of aid to Syrian refugees in the form of 3,500 kits filled with food, sanitation items and blankets, according to staff. (Each kit serves seven to eight family members.) Currently in the planning stages is a psychosocial program to train Israeli and Jordanian psychiatrists to give trauma counseling to refugees.

Israeli Flying Aid, on the other hand — perhaps for its more discrete approach — has managed to deliver 20 tons of medications; 70 tons of sanitation items; 120 tons of bedding, building materials and water canteens; 670 tons of food; and 300,000 dry meals, according to its Web site. And the organization is reportedly already running a counseling program like the one IsraAID hopes to set up.

Sources familiar with both aid groups said that Zahavi and Lusky used to be part of the same organization but went their separate ways a few years ago, due to personal and ideological differences.

When Israeli Flying Aid started to work in Syria, it took down its Web site and created a nondescript alternative. The group’s new site reads: “Not only … do volunteers have to hide from the host country, but they also must be cautious of Iranian and Syrian intelligence personnel who have infiltrated the host countries and disguise themselves as refugees. They bring information back to the Syrian government, including numbers and names, and also actively try to frighten and hurt the refugees. There have even been reports of infiltrators poisoning the water sources of the refugees. As a result, the Israeli NGO works with cash only: in order to buy the humanitarian aid locally, to stay under the radar, and protect the lives of volunteers and local contacts.”

Aid organizations are normally hungry for press, because without it, they have trouble tracking down the donations they need to respond to sudden disasters. But Lusky’s reputation as a sort of trans-border superhero, dropping kindness bombs onto Israel’s sworn enemies, has built her all the connections she needs — including a key partnership with the Jewish Coalition for Syrian Refugees in Jordan, a coalition run by the New York-based American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).

The initiative was spearheaded in May by the IRC’s Bennett, the American queen of Jewish disaster relief. When the IRC, which she oversees, released a 2013 report on the plight of Syrian refugees, Bennett said she realized that “this was worst refugee crisis of our time — a humanitarian disaster of unimaginable proportions.”

So far, of around $200,000 that the JDC has allocated toward helping Syrian refugees in Jordan, $50,000 has gone straight to Israeli Flying Aid for delivery of food and sanitation items. (Another $50,000, for example, went to the Jordanian Red Crescent to give first-aid training to Syrian refugees.)

Although Bennett declined to comment on the partnership with Israeli Flying Aid in particular, she said: “We make allocations only to organizations that the coalition has vetted.”

Amid a conflict as complex as the one unfolding in Syria, a stamp of approval from a major philanthropy group can mean everything.

“It’s not just the Jewish community” that is hesitant to donate to Syrian relief efforts, said Charlene Seidle, executive director of the Leichtag Foundation, a Southern California grant-maker that donated $75,000 to the JDC’s Syria fund. “In general, it’s a confusing situation — there are conflicting reports on the media, there’s a lot of nuance around it, and people are worried. They don’t want money to get in the wrong hands. For us, we take a lot of comfort in the fact that the JDC, in particular, was involved. We have a high degree of trust in the JDC’s ability to localize and allocate in the event of disaster.”

IsraAID has tapped into various other Jewish groups in North America for support, including the American Jewish Committee and the top Jewish federation in Toronto.

Boms said there is value in both Israeli aid groups’ approaches. But as a career advocate of diplomacy between nations, he noted that the more mainstream the narrative of Israelis helping Syrians in Jordan becomes, the more a future of Middle East collaboration can be digested by the general public.

Nir and Qutaibah: The Ambassadors

Nir Boms strolled into his coffee-shop interview in the posh German Colony of Jerusalem in a neat gray business suit, fresh off a lunch date with another high-up Jerusalemite — a culture-maker grappling with the challenge of trying to coax a prominent Syrian musician to play in Israel.

“Nir is also a prominent Syrian,” joked the friend.

There is a small circle of Israeli thinkers who make it their mission to shatter the notion that Israel is an island in the Middle East — and Boms just might be the ringleader. He is simultaneously the former academic liaison to the Embassy of Israel in Washington, D.C., and a co-founder of cyberdissidents.org, a blog site committed to upholding the freedom-of-expression principles of the Arab Spring. Its staff includes advisers and contributors from Egypt, Iran, Tunisia and Syria.

“For me, it was very important for us to try and be as visible as possible,” Boms said of the Hand in Hand mission he helped organize.

For Melanie, too. But she soon realized that her Israeli volunteers would have to hide behind a Christian aid organization. “At first, I was very sad about it — it was a decision that we needed to take, but I was sad,” she said. “But things had more impact than that. Because now there’s a Web site; there are pictures; there’s a Facebook page that represents us and everything that is happening from Israel [in response to] this crisis. And people all over the world see these pictures, and see the aid — mine, Gal’s, doctors from Israel, whatever, everything is posted in that Facebook page. And I get many replies from doctors in Syria and journalists from Syria that are thanking us, and saying that they never thought about the meaning of Israeli citizens. They don’t even have it in their vocabulary — only Zionist. And now they see things that they couldn’t have known otherwise.”

Boms said that diplomatic ties between clashing cultures in the region can often be more easily formed outside the immediate sphere of conflict — online, or between immigrant populations living in less-charged environments like the United States.

But he has also taken a bold approach to forming bonds smack in the hotbed of conflict: His diverse and intimate network in the Middle East includes members of the Syrian opposition, whom he just visited in Turkey last month.

Right after his interview with the Journal, Boms sent an e-mail containing one of his closest contacts in Jordan, with the note: “FYI, one of those you need to meet …” 

Qutaibah, 24, met Boms through an older Jordanian friend who had attended the same conference as the Israeli academic, and soon became an integral player in pulling off Melanie’s dream to haul 5,000 items of Israeli clothing across the border. (A feat that more experienced aid workers thought impossible, due to enduring suspicion between Israelis and Jordanians, despite their 1994 peace treaty.)

“I would be so worried if some Jordanian friends catch this newspaper and read my name,” said Qutaibah, dipping into a bowl of baba ganoush at the best hummus spot in Amman, Jordan’s capital city. “It will be like a sin if I deal with Israeli people or a Jewish Journal. … This will be crazy, because everyone here knows everyone.” 

Qutaibah explained that while Israel might have a treaty with the Jordanian government, the Israeli people haven’t necessarily earned the trust of the Jordanian people.

“If anyone hears I’m working with Israelis, they’ll think I’m a spy,” he said.

But a rare trusting hunch in the young Jordanian entrepreneur has driven him to learn more about, and work closely with the Jewish people. He traveled around Israel for one week last year, swimming off Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean shore and staying a few nights at Boms’ house in Jerusalem.  “I tried to know more about his personality,” Qutaibah said of his new Israeli friend. “And, every day, I asked him about everything — about Jewish people, how they live, what they’re interested in, everything. We went to the Old City with a Jewish guide, and the next day we went with an Arab guide … but Nir taught me more. He taught me about how we can improve our relations with the Israeli people.”

If there is a fresh face for this “new Middle East” the academics dream of, it is Qutaibah’s. The lanky 24-year-old, with long, swooping eyelashes and a Roberto Benigni hair flip, is almost comically optimistic and helpful without hesitation, showing up to this reporter’s hotel in downtown Irbid, Jordan, every morning with two cell phones full of contacts he could call for directions, transportation, government shortcuts, etc. If one fell through, he called another.

In collaboration with a Christian organization in Israel and an NGO in Jordan, IsraAID has made six trips to distribute aid to Syrian refugees. The missions have concentrated on urban refugees and those living in scattered settlements outside the Za’atari camp. Photo courtesy of IsraAID

One year back, Boms asked Qutaibah whether he might be able to help a group of Israelis deliver aid to Syrian refugees living in Jordan. “I told him, ‘We must find organizations in Jordan who will work like a partnership,’ ” Qutaibah said.

That task turned out, like everything involving Israelis, to be more thorny than he expected. “The main answer to everything is,” Qutaibah joked, “ ‘very complicated.’ ”

He eventually locked down a couple of partners, but as word has spread that Israelis are on the giving end, Jordanian aid organizations have become increasingly skittish. “Qutaibah always likes to make some propaganda,” the leader of one Jordanian NGO said. “I don’t like this way.”

Even the UNHCR, when asked if they’ve received Israeli or Jewish aid, stated only: “Any agency that we deal with has to be cleared by Government of Jordan, and registered in Jordan as an NGO.”

Boms described the walls he hits as an Israeli operating outside Israel: “They’ve called me a Mossad agent in many different places,” he said. “Everything we touch as Israelis, from delivering a towel to speaking with somebody, becomes a whole issue. It’s foxy. We are a foxy place because of the geopolitics of the Middle East.”

While many refugees have sent thanks for the Israeli aid trickling into Mafraq, one Syrian mother expressed frustration about all the hoopla surrounding the missions. “Israelis just send secondhand clothes. This is not enough,” said al-Araheem, the Syrian mother of six who lives in a small apartment in Mafraq but is two months behind on rent. “People who come from the Gulf, they pay a lot a lot of money. But when Israelis come, they bring used clothing. They collect a lot of money by Web site, and we have never seen anything.”

The Israeli and Jewish aid circulating among Syrian refugees is indeed dwarfed by the billions of dollars donated by Persian Gulf states such as Kuwait and Qatar. “I don’t think there’s any illusion that a funder giving $75,000 — or even $75 million — is going to solve this profound issue,” said Seidle of the Leichtag Foundation. “We’re talking about thousands and thousands and thousands of lives. But it doesn’t mean that we can just stand idly by and do nothing, either.”

Still, it remains a common complaint among refugees: Journalists, need surveyors and government workers keep on traveling through, taking notes and snapping photos, with no immediate proof of benefit.

“They don’t just need our sympathy,” Boms said. “They need something tangible.”

But Qutaibah has made one particular Israeli friend who has caused him extra grief within his network in northern Jordan.

“He promised to come last week, but he didn’t come,” said al-Araheem, her light-green eyes open wide, defensive, and her arms folded tight across her chest.

Moti: The American Dreamer

Al-Araheem was referring to Washington, D.C.’s cover boy for Jewish-Syrian collaboration: Moti Kahana, a chatty rental-car mogul who was born Israeli but reps himself more as a New York Jew.

Kahana is one of the only parties involved in delivering aid to Syrians who was willing to use his full name for this story. In fact, he insisted — because, for him, high-profile Jewishness is integral to the cause.

“I told [Moti] from the very beginning, he has to make a choice: Does he want to be Israeli or does he want to help Syrians? He can’t do both,” said a friend of his working with the Syrian opposition.

But Kahana has chosen to embrace the shtick. A video interview with Israel’s Channel 10 in which Kahana advocated for the Syrian opposition — while wrapped in a Free Syrian Army flag — was re-aired by Hezbollah-affiliated news channel Al-Manar, painting Kahana as the crazy Zionist spy meddling in Syrian affairs.

At the height of the paranoia, in May, Assad himself posted a photo of Kahana on his official Facebook page, with the caption: “Jewish-Israeli businessman Moti Kahana holding the rebel flag in a Washington conference with rebel representatives.”

Last month, making the rounds at a conference in the nicest, most modernized part of Amman — where women wear gorgeous silk headscarves or no headscarves at all — Kahana told this story often, finding a way to drop, “Assad mentioned me on his Facebook page” into almost any conversation. 

Kahana said he has donated around $100,000 of his own cash to the Syrian cause — money that has gone toward refugee aid efforts, including those of Israeli Flying Aid, but also toward spreading the gospel of Assad’s opposition.

The New York businessman claims to have paid for the flights of opposition members, as well as some of the logistical expenses surrounding Sen. John McCain’s top-secret trip into Syria in May. Like Boms, Kahana said he has been making diplomacy trips to Turkey to speak with Syrian opposition leaders, and has made some headway in convincing them to open their minds to Israeli-Syrian collaboration.

For a while, Kahana was also toting a friend of his from the Syrian opposition around the United States, introducing him to synagogues full of Americans, trying to round up good-faith and financial support for Syria’s freedom fighters.

Bennett remembered meeting Kahana at the JDC’s kickoff dinner for its Syrian aid initiative: “I found him to be very committed to helping out.”

But Kahana’s current project is designed to out-wow the rest: He plans to distribute small-business loans to Syrian refugee women throughout the Middle East through his own U.S.-based micro-financing 501(c)(3). 

“After [President Barack] Obama decided not to attack, we realized [the war in Syria] was not going to end,” he said. “And my focus shifted to, ‘How can we help [refugees] sustain themselves?’ So I started the micro-financing project.”

That was over half a year ago. Now, with talks on the project drawn out for months, the Jordanian NGOs that agreed to collaborate and the Syrian women who filled out loan applications in Mafraq — including al-Araheem’s mother, hoping to sell homemade sweets — are beginning to doubt Kahana’s commitment.

“Where is the project? Where is the budget?” the leader of one such Jordanian NGO asked. “It costs a lot for Americans to come here, right? But how can they come without real things with them? That makes me crazy.”

For Kahanh, who is committed to an open, by-the-book approach, “It takes longer than everybody wants it to. I can’t break the law in any country — not Jordan, not Israel, not America. I have to go by the system, and sometimes the refugees, they’re kind of eager, like, ‘Get it done, get it done.’ I can’t. … My goal in Jordan is to have cooperation with the Jordanian authorities. I’m not doing something under the table.”

Lina Shalabi, a Palestinian-American in her early 30s who has been doing legwork for the project both in the United States and Jordan, lamented having to play the bad cop while visiting refugees’ barebones apartments.

“It’s hard. A lot of them told me such sad stories about themselves, personal stories — and I was assuming the role of a loan officer,” she said. “I was like, ‘I’m sorry, but it really has nothing to do with the loan application.’ … I didn’t want them to think that that could affect the loan.”

The ambitious endeavor brought Kahana and Shalabi to the extravagant Four Seasons Hotel in Amman in late November for a Women’s World Banking conference, centered on the topic of micro-financing for women in the Middle East and North Africa. At the two-day event, Kahana passed around quirky business cards with a photo of Rosie the Riveter and the name of his organization, Micro4Women, printed in wiggly font. He tried to track down the international partners he would need to set up his micro-financing project in refugee havens across the Middle East.

A friend of Kahana’s from Kiva, an innovative loan Web site that crowd-sources its funds, expressed interest in the project over a gourmet hot-lunch buffet. (The leftovers of which, one couldn’t help but notice, could have fed hundreds at the refugee camp an hour north.)

However, other high-level micro-financing folks at the conference looked a little skittish.

The head of the Lebanese Association for Development told Kahana point-blank that his ties to Israel and Jewish America would, unfortunately, prevent them from working together. Jewish money would raise a red flag for the organization’s partners and clients, he said.

Even for a journalist traveling around Jordan on behalf of an American-Jewish newspaper, interactions with government officials were tense. Qutaibah advised this reporter early on not to say the story was for a Jewish newspaper; after ignoring this advice at the Interior Ministry, a permission document for the Los Angeles-based Jewish Journal to enter the Za’atari camp and speak to Syrian refugees was held up for days. (According to Ayman Arabeyat, director of the Jordanian press office, the word “Jewish” specifically caused the delay.) And when permission was finally issued, Jordanian police inside the camp suspected the documents had been forged. They sent an officer along to monitor questions posed to the Syrian refugees; Qutaibah, who heard them speaking together in Arabic, said police were suspicious that the Journal was actually Israeli, and intended to run a negative news report on Jordanian management of the camp.

“It’s a tricky thing with the Jordanians, because it takes a while to establish trust,” Boms said. “It’s not easy for them to work with us, and we need to be cognizant of that.” 

The IRC’s Bennett, who also heads the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, said these growing pains could also be seen as “a tremendous opportunity for people-to-people diplomacy. Most people in the surrounding countries have never met a Jew, and the only Israeli they’ve ever seen is on the other side of a gun. This is an opportunity for people to get to know each other on a human level.”

The subtext being, of course, that when the shrapnel finally settles in Syria, if the opposition has its way, Israel will be looking at an entirely new set of negotiating partners.

Chanukah in Chad

Janice Kamenir-Reznik is the Co-Founder and President of Jewish World Watch (JWW), a leading organization in the fight against genocide and mass atrocities worldwide. JWW’s work is currently focused on the ongoing crises in Sudan and Congo. Janice is currently traveling along with Diana Buckhantz, JWW Board Member, on a site visit to the JWW Solar Cooker Project in the Farchana refugee camp in eastern Chad, home to approximately 30,000 Darfuri refugees.

[Farchana, Chad] — It is late into the evening, and I just remembered – tonight is the first night of Chanukah, even in the seemingly God-forsaken town of Farchana on the eastern rim of Chad.  Today my JWW travel partner, Diana Buckhantz, and I spent Shabbat visiting the Farchana refugee camp. We came to meet the Darfuri refugee women served by our Solar Cooker Project.  With all of the scores of organizations that support this massive camp, I was told today that the donor partners almost never actually come to the camp to meet, on a personal level, with individual refugees to engage in conversation.  Most donors, I was told, receive reports explaining how the funds are used and describing the benefits conferred.  As we met the women today, the vital importance of visiting the camps and talking to the people being served, which JWW has done in Congo and Darfur whenever possible, was clearer to me than ever.

One obvious reason that personal contact is so important is to bear witness to the women’s stories of loss, survival and resilience. Bringing these mind boggling and dramatically tragic stories home helps to educate and mobilize our community and give a face to an otherwise very distant, removed, hard to understand genocide, the effects of which continue to unfold. 

The other reason is more subtle, but it is equally, if not more, important.  Many of the women we met with expressed a similar sentiment when they heard who we were and why we came to visit. With faces that speak legions about their sense of isolation, their sadness and their understandable depression, they were so grateful to be remembered especially now, at a time when the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and other international non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have announced huge reductions in resources previously provided to the Farchana camp.  The refugees at Farchana know that those resources are being redeployed from Farchana to be used in other, newer conflict areas around the world.  We learned that this week alone UNHCR reduced by 25 per cent, effective immediately, and in some cases even retroactively, the funds and services allocated to Farchana.  There was a further UNHCR directive issued this week that for the 2013 budget year, Farchana will take an additional 28 percent reduction in allocation.

Information about all of this redeployment of funds sends a very serious and provocative message to the refugee population; first and foremost, it means that their services will be drastically reduced.  To people living in abject poverty and profound squalor, drastic reductions in services could be the difference between life and death.  But what is also significant and quite painful to the refugees in Farchana, is the message of abandonment that the reductions imply.  The reduction of funds is a symbol of the sad truth that the world’s attention has moved on.

So in the midst of such depressing news, unwittingly, our trip to Farchana has taken on new significance – to the refugees, to the aid workers, and to us at JWW.  For the refugees and aid workers, a visit from an organization that is not reducing its funding but rather was interested in listening to ideas for future projects, lifted spirits and brought a degree of hopefulness.  For me, Diana and for JWW, it means an intensification of our responsibilities, as we are being relied upon by one of the most beleaguered populations in the world, a population that is increasingly isolated and abandoned.

Today, after I introduced myself and JWW to the women refugees, ending my words with JWW’s core value of “not standing idly by,” a woman, Awa, stood and said that Jewish World Watch gives her hope.  She continued by telling us, “with the passage of so many years, I was sure that by now everyone had forgotten about Darfur and given up that we should have a future. But hearing about your education and advocacy work on our behalf gives me back some spirit and makes me know that not everyone in the world has forgotten about us.”

This evening, as I remembered that it was the start of Chanukah, I reflected on Awa’s words and realized that we are faced with a serious challenge – an apt challenge to consider as I pulled my small menorah out of my duffle bag.  Chanukah is about fighting against great odds and ensuring that right prevails over might.  It is also a time of bright and shining lights.  Tonight is the first light of Chanukah, and I am very far away from home.  I came close to forgetting to light the first candle.  But, by myself (Diana was long asleep) in my hut late at night in the World Food Program compound in Farchana, two candles were lit.  As I watched the candles burn down, I felt renewed strength and obligation to continue our work here and to continue to shine a light on problems and circumstances others might prefer not to see.  This surely was a memorable, if not festive, Chanukah, and one that I likely will never forget.

Syria pushes world refugee total towards record, U.N. says

With tens of thousands fleeing Syria every month, the number of refugees worldwide in 2012 is set to be the highest this century, a senior United Nations official said on Monday.

Antonio Guterres, the body's High Commissioner for Refugees, told his UNHCR agency's executive committee that its ability to cope was being stretched to the limit.

“Already in 2011, as crisis after crisis unfolded, more than 800,000 people crossed borders in search of refuge — an average of more than 2,000 refugees every day,” the former Portuguese prime minister said.

That total had been the highest since the turn of the century “and so far this year more than 700,000 people have fled from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Sudan and Syria”, Guterres said.

Last Friday, another UNHCR official said the total from Syria could reach 700,000 this year, nearly four times its earlier estimate as government troops battle rebels across the country.

About 294,000 refugees fleeing 18 months of fighting have already crossed into Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon and Turkey, or await registration there, Panos Moumtzis told a news briefing.

He said 100,000 people had fled Syria in August, 60,000 in September and at the moment 2,000 or 3,000 were crossing daily into neighbouring countries.

The new refugees are joining some 42 million around the globe who have fled across borders to escape violence. Many of these have been in temporary shelter provided by the UNHCR for a decade or more, some for even longer.

Amid the global economic crisis and with budgets of governments stretched, Guterres told the executive committee that the cost of helping refugees was escalating fast while long-lasting crises like Afghanistan and Somalia continued.

“We are at a moment when the demands on us are rising while the means available to respond have remained at a similar level to last year,” he said.

“Our operations in Africa, in particular, are dramatically underfunded. At this moment, we have no room for unforeseen needs, no reserves available. In today's unpredictable operating environment, this is a cause for deep concern.”

Reporting by Robert Evans; Editing by Robert Woodward

From Darfur to Israel: A Family’s Perilous Exodus

“We left Sudan, took a boat on the Nile to Aswan and went to Cairo to seek protection at the United Nations office,” said Ahmed, sitting in Ketziot, a maximum-security Israeli prison near the Egyptian border.

Some 150 miles away, sitting in the office of a women’s crisis center in the western Galilee, Ahmed’s wife, Fatima, learns of her husband’s whereabouts from this reporter. They had not seen each other since Dec. 29, when they sneaked into Israel with their three children.

“My husband was arrested in Darfur and then in Khartoum,” said Fatima, her head wrapped in a blue scarf, with her children beside her. “We had to leave.”

Knesset members and the Israeli media have been barred from Ketziot, where dozens of Sudanese are being detained. But JTA was granted an exclusive interview and entrance to the Negev prison.

Together, the husband and wife pieced together their story.

From Darfur, where he was imprisoned and tortured, Ahmed and his family made their way to Khartoum, where he was similarly arrested. Seeing that the Sudanese capital was not safe, they went to Egypt.

Even as he sits in an Israeli prison, Ahmed’s fate and the fate of his fellow refugees could still be determined by Egypt. Both the government of Israel and the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) would prefer to see the deportation of the refugees in Israel back to Egypt, if they were guaranteed not be to be deported back to Sudan.

Ahmed’s family was among the tens of thousands of Sudanese who have sought safe haven in Cairo, with the hopes of being recognized as refugees by the United Nations and therefore eligible for asylum in a third country.

Egypt’s handling of the current Sudanese refugee crisis can be traced to a 1996 assassination attempt, in which extremist Egyptians had been plotting for months in Sudan to kill Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Although the assassination attempt failed to kill the Egyptian leader, it did lead to a change in policy for Sudanese entering Egypt. For half a century, some 2 million Sudanese had entered Egypt without a visa and had unrestricted access to employment, education and health care.

According to UNHCR’s Cairo office, between 1994 and 2005, 58,535 Sudanese nationals sought safe haven in Egypt, with two-thirds coming from either the Darfur region, where some 200,000 to 400,000 people have been killed and another 2.5 million displaced, or the south, where an estimated 1.5 million Sudanese, mostly Christians, were killed in a 21-year civil war.

By the end of 2005, 31,990 Sudanese were granted refugee status in Cairo and obtained the coveted U.N. blue card that certifies their refugee status and qualifies them as candidates for resettlement to third countries, mostly the United States, Canada and Australia. About half of those were actually resettled, but another 13,327 were still in limbo, and they were becoming increasingly frustrated.

“I went to the U.N. office,” and was told “to come back in six months for an interview,” Ahmed said. “He went back six months later, and they said they had to wait another six months,” Fatima said.

On Sept. 29, 2005, at the start of Ramadan, Sudanese refugees moved into Mustafa Mahmoud Park, put up protest banners and received the protection of the Egyptian police.

“We lived in the park with the other families, across from the United Nations office for three months,” Fatima said. “It was very hard to find work, to feed my family,” recalled Ahmed, who has been transferred to an Israeli prison near Ramle. “I joined the demonstrations.”

The demonstrators wanted UNHCR to resume processing applications for asylum, which had been suspended for all Sudanese since June 2004, when a cease-fire was announced in southern Sudan.

At 1 a.m. on Dec. 30, 2005, 4,000 Egyptian security force members surrounded 2,000 Sudanese protesters. First came the water canons, Ahmed and Fatima recalled. They clubbed Fatima, then three months pregnant, in the stomach. Ahmed saw five people, including two children, killed. Fatima’s aunt was shot point-blank. The official death toll in front of UNHCR’s Cairo headquarters was 27.

“They took us all to jail, each one to a different lockup,” Fatima recalled. “There, they tortured me, gave me no food and I learned that they did the same to my husband. Only later did I learn from my children that each of them was alone.

“Only when my 2 1/2-year-old began crying did the police take him around to other jails to see if anyone could identify him. My 8-year-old daughter identified him and told the police that he was her brother. They were allowed to be together, but they weren’t given food for long periods.

“After five days, they released me, and I began looking for my children. I went from jail to jail until I found them.”

Ahmed said he was freed a week after his wife.

They threatened “that we would be deported to Sudan.” That is when “I decided we are going to leave Egypt and go to Israel to seek protection. We were not safe in Egypt.”

The UNHCR office in Cairo did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Ahmed said he kept his departure plan secret from everyone, including Fatima. Visiting an Internet cafe in Cairo, he was able to find friends from Darfur who were resettled in the United States and Canada. With earphones on, sitting next to the computer, the Darfurian with a seventh-grade education used a computer voice communications program to plead with his friends to send him money, but he didn’t say what it was for.

When the money arrived, he told Fatima of his plans to escape with the family to Israel, arranged for the Bedouin smugglers and set out to cross the Sinai Desert.

“The Bedouins said that I was going to be taken to prison, and that Fatima would be taken to a shelter in the north,” Ahmed said. “But at least we would be safe.”

Yosef Israel Abramowitz is an award-winning journalist and founder of socialaction.com. Abramowitz, who moved with his family last year to Israel, blogs daily at peoplehood.org. JTA correspondent Dina Kraft in Israel contributed to this piece. The names of the refugees have been changed to protect them from reprisals against family members in Arab countries.