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.
December 11, 2013

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.

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