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Jews, Arabs and Bedouin Help Middle Eastern Refugees on Aegean Island Haven

Visibly disoriented in the night’s darkness, Muntasira Hamawi teetered out of a rubber boat and onto the foggy shore of Lesbos, the third largest of Greece’s islands in the Aegean — where an Israeli volunteer speaking her language immediately began attending to her needs.

“You’ve arrived and you are safe. We are here to help you through this,” Malek Abu Grara, a volunteer medic with the group IsraAid, said in Arabic as he swiftly checked for signs of hypothermia on Muntasira, her husband and their 4-year-old daughter.

The three, who had traveled for more than three and a half hours along with some 20 other passengers from Syria in a flimsy dinghy boat partially filled with frigid water, made no effort to hide their shock.

“There are Israelis here!” Hamawi exclaimed. “Masha’alla, they speak Arabic!” The Arabic phrase is a common expression of gratitude. And that is what Hamawi clearly felt as she adjusted her black hijab and shifted in her still damp clothes.

Just days earlier, incessant bombings and shellings drove the Hamawis out of their hometown of Hama, in central Syria, from which they set out by foot toward Turkey. There they paid nearly $2,000 for smugglers to facilitate a boat ride over the same stretch of Mediterranean Sea that has, since the start of 2015, served as a watery grave for more than 4,000 migrants, according to the International Organization for Migration.

IsraAid volunteers distribute emergency humanitarian aid along Lesbos’s beach, plainly in sight of Turkey. Amid the elation, exhaustion and confusion refugees and migrants feel on arriving from Syria, Iraq and other violence-plagued Middle Eastern countries, many have been surprised to find that their rescuers are Jewish or Arab Israelis, volunteers said.

“Some said that I was the first Jew they met, others said ‘Shalom!’” said Talya Feldman, a volunteer from California working with IsraAid’s psychosocial support team.

On these pebble stone beaches, IsraAid team members said that the demanding work leaves little room for politics. They have sat brokenhearted after unsuccessfully performing CPR on children, and have watched helplessly as a wooden boat carrying 250 passengers collapsed in the water only a few miles in the distance.

But they’ve also helped to deliver babies on the sand, and received the hugs and praises of overjoyed grandmothers.

“Every day I come home crying, but the chance to be able to help someone the next day keeps me going,” said the medic, Abu Grara, a slight but strapping 22-year-old Bedouin from the southern Israeli town of Rahat.

Blinking his car headlights as he spoke, to signal to incoming boats on that same night, Abu Grara added that the group’s humanitarian focus has also made the island a successful undertaking in co-existence—precisely because it’s not defined as such. “Here is real co-existence — we’re Muslims, Jews, Christians, Israelis, Palestinians. No one cares about any of that nonsense,” he said.

Abu Grara was first attracted to medicine because of its ability to transcend Israel’s deep divisions. But he encountered racism while working with Israel’s Red Cross affiliate, Magen David Adom, he said, and at Barzilai Hospital, in the coastal city of Ashkelon. Similarly, he said, he has seen co-existence projects in Israel get bogged down by politics, and too often led by “people who end up destroying rather than building anything.”

IsraAid worker and founder Shachar Zahavi first envisioned the group as a way to connect Israel’s rich professional pool to the world’s most pressing crises.

“I wanted it to be known that we are from Israel, but the main idea was more internal, to motivate the 8 million people in Israel, one of the most developed countries in the Middle East, to become like other Western countries providing humanitarian assistance,” Zahavi said.

Image by Shira Rubin

Jewish groups and international aid organizations, along with individual donors in Israel and abroad, provide IsraAid with most of its $5 million annual budget. In the United States, the organization is registered in Washington, D.C. and has also participated in the emergency responses to natural disasters in 10 states across the country. Elsewhere, its staff and short-term volunteers, numbering about 100, have responded to man-made and natural disasters in 17 locations, including post-Ebola Liberia, South Sudan, Iraqi Kurdistan and Chad. Zahavi said that the only sources of tensions have come not from local communities but from European aid workers critical of Israel.

Because many of the IsraAid volunteers speak Arabic, many of the refugees do not even know the team’s national origins.

“It was the last thing I would have expected, by God. I was really shocked when I learned they were from Israel,” exclaimed Mona, a Syrian refugee interviewed by phone in Germany, where she and her 7-year-old granddaughter have since been resettled. She requested that her last name not be used, in order to protect her son being held in a Syrian prison.

Mona, who is 50, said that the IsraAid team restored her “morale” during her two-month stay on the island as she waited for her asylum status papers to be filed for her and her granddaughter.

In the phone interview, Mona said that she had never before met an Israeli or a Jew, and that her only impressions about Jews came from media reports that showed “humanitarian repression in Israel.”

After receiving help from Jewish and Arab Israelis, “my reaction was that Israel was better than the Syrian regime, because at least it does not kill its own people and its own children,” she said.

A vegetable seller from the Syrian city Talbiseh in Homs Governorate, Mona said she saw her hometown transform into one of the most active anti-regime hotspots in 2011, and since then into virtual rubble following regime airstrikes, shellings and, more recently, Russian cluster bombs.

“I was living a nightmare worse than what you see in horror movies. Every minute there was an air attack or shelling,” she said.

But only upon reaching Greece — widely seen as the gateway into the European Union — did Mona begin to process the loss of her family. Three of her sons—all in their early to mid-20s—had died in the war, she said: the first in a shelling, the second while under torture in a Syrian jail and the third in a bombing at a school.

Mona describes herself as a religious Muslim. She wears a hijab and continues to pray daily to “let her soul breathe air,” but said that the war has made her realize that Islam today “is only a word without action behind it.” She cited the lack of initiatives by the rich Arab Gulf to take in any of Syria’s some 6.5 million refugees.

“Anyone in the Gulf can have in his home a thousand Syrians, but they instead spend their money having fun, and don’t even think about us,” she said. “On the island of Lesbos, I saw that Jews were the ones who were helping, not Arab organizations.”

On Lesbos, at a transit point that has been overwhelmed with more than 120,000 refugees since 2015, the IsraAid team has had the unique advantage of dispatching Arabic-speaking Palestinian citizens of Israel to help refugees both mourn and prepare for their onward journey, said Manal Shehadeh, program manager on the island.

Like many volunteers, Shehadeh said that her work here is personal. “I feel that these are very much my people — Iraqis, Syrians, people from the Levant, and many are originally Palestinians.”

Before volunteering to work in Lesbos, she advocated for the rights of Palestinians in Israel and the West Bank as the program coordinator of Middle East Entrepreneurs of Tomorrow, a nongovernmental organization founded in cooperation with Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and sought to promote social and political change through joint Jewish-Arab entrepreneurship.

But despite the organization’s name, Shehadeh emphasized, “We are not here in the name of Israel per se, it’s rather that we are from Israel, with very different backgrounds.”

Mira Atzil, a clinical psychologist on the team who is an Israeli Jew and speaks Arabic, said that her nationality is usually of no concern to her patients, who are reeling from severe and compounded traumas.

“For me, working here is a humanitarian mission, a professional challenge, and also a chance to close the circle with my own history,” said Atzil, whose family is originally Syrian. After the establishment of Israel in 1948, her family fled the unrest there by packing into a boat headed for the Israeli town of Rosh Hanikra.

Atzil has attempted to address the new arrivals’ traumas with intervention approaches developed for Israeli patients with post-traumatic stress disorder during the second intifada. But without the time or resources for proper clinical treatment, she said, the main goal is for the refugees to understand one simple message: “If you made it here, that means you have the strength to continue onwards.”

Contact Shira Rubin at [email protected].

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