February 21, 2020

IsraAID Seeks Local Volunteer Experts

Above: IsraAID leaders at a ceremony honoring its leadership in the fields of health and safety by the City of Beverly Hills. Right: Lucy Uber; Photo courtesy of IsraAID

In recent years, Lesbos, a small Greek Island in the northern Aegean Sea, has seen the arrival of thousands of asylum seekers fleeing conflicts in the Middle East. Many remain in refugee camps, their status in limbo. In March 2018, The New York Times dubbed Lesbos “The Greek Island of Despair.” A few months later in July, 31-year-old Lucy Uber, a pediatrician from Studio City, went to Lesbos to volunteer and lend her medical expertise. 

“I was working in a clinic in a refugee camp there,” Uber told the Journal, “and that’s when I became exposed to the work IsraAID was doing.” 

IsraAID, an Israeli-based humanitarian organization has been working on the ground in Lesbos since 2015, providing invaluable medical and psychological support. It has also set up the “School of Peace” for refugee children on the island. With Israeli Arabs making up a key part of IsraAID’s volunteer contingent, aid and education is often provided in Arabic, the mother tongue of most beneficiaries.  

But no matter where crises occur around the globe, there’s a good chance IsraAID is there. Founded in 2001, IsraAID has worked in emergency and long-term development settings in 47 countries. The nongovernmental organization (NGO) has a dedicated staff of 300 personnel worldwide, including offices around the United States, and nearly 2,000 high-level professionals on standby for volunteer missions. Most of them live in Israel. 

Now, IsraAID is ramping up efforts in Southern California to entice local young professionals like Uber to take part in volunteer missions under the banner of its recently launched IsraAid Humanitarian Professionals Network (IHPN). 

“There are three pillars to IHPN — recruit, engage and deploy,” Farah Shamolian, a Los Angeles-based program director for IsraAID told the Journal. “The idea is to create a roster here in the United States of professional expert volunteers.”

Shamolian and her volunteer “task force” comprising influential community members already have recruited more than 100 IHPN signees. Her goal is to double that number of professionals in the medical, mental health and engineering sectors by the end of the year. IsraAID also has plans to expand the venture to the Bay Area and New York. 

“In the United States, it’s all very exciting,” Seth Davis, executive director of IsraAID USA, the American arm that launched two years ago, told the Journal. “We’re creating a movement that connects professionals in a meaningful way representing Israel. It’s in values, heritage and history. It’s truly invigorating to start something like this and watch it get all this traction.”

In 2018, IsraAID secured a cutting-edge grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles to install IHPN locally. Through word of mouth, email blasts, one-on-one meetings and cultivating personal connections, Shamolian launched IHPN in January with the first of six planned monthly engagement sessions in Los Angeles. The sessions offer expert briefings, emergency preparedness training and priority access to deploy on IsraAID missions. 

“It’s really inspiring to be in the same room with high-level doctors and so many individuals of different backgrounds who are all interested in humanitarian work and giving back,” Shamolian said after February’s “Day After the Disaster” session attended by about 40 members. “It’s so great to see that in Los Angeles, and it’s growing.” 

One of those members at February’s session was a familiar face to Shamolian — her Taft Charter High School classmate Uber. Uber left the session inspired.   

“It’s really inspiring to be in the same room with high-level doctors and so many individuals of different backgrounds who are all interested in humanitarian work and giving back.”— Farah Shamolian

“I think it’s really special to be surrounded by people from different areas of expertise in different fields that all bring something to the table when it comes to this process of having a disaster response,” Uber said. “We’re learning together how we’d best prepare for something like that.” 

Uber will be taking part in an IsraAID mission to Kenya in April, volunteering to work with more than 160,000 refugees living in Kakuma Camp. At one of the world’s largest refugee camps, Uber can expect to see more than 100 patients a day. 

However, not everyone in the IHPN is as experienced as Uber and ready to deploy immediately. Ben Raffi, 36, an ear, nose and throat surgeon who lives in Torrance, attended the February IHPN engagement session alongside Uber, marking his first involvement with IsraAID, or any humanitarian agency for that matter. 

“It was exciting to be there and it’s such an easy cause to rally behind,” said Raffi, who hopes to find time in his schedule to deploy down the line. “I wanted to find a way to combine my professional interests and my enthusiasm for pro-Israel philanthropic work. It’s one of the ways to show support for Israel and promote its positive influence in the world without having to get into the messiness of some of the politics.” 

But when it comes to Israel, politics can be hard to ignore. So, what is it like representing an Israeli humanitarian agency abroad? Niv Rabino, who spent a year in Lesbos as IsraAID’s Head of Mission, told the Journal that the experience shattered his expectations. 

“On a daily basis we’d meet people from all over the Middle East who never encountered Israelis, and there was definitely stigmas and misconceptions,” he said. “That environment was quite unique and incredible in all the breaking of false concepts and making unlikely connections. Also, other NGOs saw us Israeli Jews and Arabs working together and that changed a lot of minds. It was powerful and I was mostly unprepared. When I came into development, I never considered that building bridges would leave the biggest mark on me.” 

For Uber, a graduate of Tel Aviv University’s Sackler School of Medicine, heading out on an IsraAID volunteer mission is about more than helping to provide pediatric care to Kenyan refugees. She said it feels like a chance to rekindle a connection to Israel. 

“When I left [Israel] I felt a void,” she said. “I feel like this was an amazing opportunity to feel connected even though I’m not there. This allows me to be connected to a cause that embodies everything Israel stands for.”