יום שלישי, 12 בינואר 2016

We are all in this together

Back home in Ithaca NY I can finally bring myself to wrap it up and reflect on my journey to Lesvos. I have been asked to tell my story by the community, friends and family. Some are proud of my volunteer work, some are curious about it and some question the entire thing. 
                                                  [Volenteers husband and wife from Switzerlan] 

For my part, I am curious about what people are expecting to hear or what people are ready to hear. It is not a usual humanitarian crisis (as much as humanitarian crisis could possibly be usual if at all). This is a crisis with global political, cultural and even religious aspects. Mass immigration and unknown implications are scary for ordinary people in the countries even as they offer new homes. 

                                          [ Upon arrival feelings of survival]

There are prejudiced opinions about Arabs and the Muslim world. And of course there is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and or Jewish-Arabs conflict in the air when we discuss the Middle East. Even during my stay I was asked to comment about an antisemitic incident in the refugee camps at Lesvos that was widely reported in Lesvos but I could not comment and didn’t. 

I came to Lesvos with an Israeli NGO, I came as an Israeli, I came as a Jewish person, but I left as simply as a human that cares. When I arrived I was worried how I would be accepted and fit in as an Israeli helping Syrians. In the end I left with many new friends; friends from Germany, Spain, Greece, England, Norway, Sweden, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Arab Israelis from my country. 

                                                   [Volenteers from Canada, Israel, Egypt and Greece]

So many volunteers from all over. When there are as many volunteers as refugees, you realize how humanity cares and that is the dominant feeling. We are all in this together. I still find it hard to tell the story of the refugees. I have seen so many faces and such pain every day. 

I am not medic and not a doctor but I carried, I waded out in the sea, I held IVs and I wrapped people with foil when they were cold. I carried babies and hugged mothers and comfort those who lost and those in shock. I helped children to change clothes and put a smile on their faces. 

                                                  [ Doctor from "Doctors Without Boarders" joined the IsraAid team]

I wanted to ask the refugees how they arrived on the shores of Europe, what made them flee? I saw the fear and sadness on their faces but also the pride and their respect for the country they have left behind. 

                                                  [ This raft carried over 50 men, women, children and babies] 

There were two incidents where I felt the hostility, but these were minor and insignificant compare to all the love and welcoming I felt by all including the refugees who were nothing but immensely grateful to whoever helped them. There is something about helping others in need that peels off the sense of self and ego. 

Humanitarian aid is not about where you are coming from, it is not about what language you speak or even your attitude. It is all about helping others that have been caught up in life-threating situations with no ability to sustain normal life. At times it is physical attack, other times it is the lack of food, places to sleep, clothes, medicine and basic conditions. 

                                                  [ Children from Syria draw pictures at Platanous a refugee camp]

If anyone asks me why I help Syrians or Arabs I say simply because that is what caring humans do when they see others in danger, and in need and I am proud to be privileged enough to give back. A person at the refugee camp asked me "What Israelis are doing here?" And I told him "We are here to rescue the enemy". He could not stop laughing and he said to me “Mazal Tov” (congratulations in Hebrew). That was my small win, just to touch someone’s heart, to move past the propaganda, person to person. I am from the Middle East and so is he. Together we can build a better future for our children.

יום שישי, 1 בינואר 2016

A special guy

A special guy

I would like to tell you about a special man that I had the honor to volunteer with, a man to contrast all stereotypes and against all conventions. A man who makes me believe there is true hope for us Jews and Arabs living together. This man, Ali, is an Ambulance medic in the Israeli company Red David Shield in Israel. He is Arab, Muslim, Bedouin and Israeli. He always wore the IsraAid shirt so proud and every time he spoke to new refugees comers in his wonderful Arabic when asked he said: I am Arab, I am an Israeli Arab. He has saved babies lives, saved women’s lives. I was with him everyday all day and filmed him and took pictures of him and listened to his stories. 

I had breakfast, lunch and dinner with him and I still can’t still can't believe my good fortune to be around this special leader. He is the first to come to the séance, the first to carry the children to safe place. The first to rush the wounded to the infirmary. Today, something extraordinary happened in the camp. After brining three children to the infirmary a Norwegian medic came to me and told me: “I want to volunteer for IsraAid. I want to be one of yours. Can you please find me a shirt with the flag of Israel? Can you give me your organization's number? You Israelis are the best team here.” As I write these lines I cannot fully acknowledge the change we made here, the impact of what this work means to people. It makes me so proud of my country Israel and so proud to be Jewish and honored to be able to co-volunteer like the legendary Ali.  

 If it wasn’t for IsraAID I could have never have made so much peace and seen the possibilities for coexistence and friendship across boundaries in the Middle East. Thank you IsraAID for giving me this amazing opportunity to help others in need. To cross cultures and to bridge differences and get to know so many wonderful people will surely make this world a better place. 

Love Mirit Hadar

This island has many lives

One day on this island seems like a few as many intense events follow one another closely.

This morning I said goodbye to one of the most amazing Jewish families I have ever met. They came all the way from San Francisco with 25 suitcases of kindness and their good hearts: hand warmers, chocolates, soap and blankets. Their generosity and kindness went beyond the donations as they were on site and on call to anything needed. They brought their teenage son and college daughter as the family bonds together over this important cause. At times I feel quite privileged being in this place where so many impressive people come together.
Family picture of the Jewish family 

I departed Mytilini and headed to the north shore with the IsraAID doctor. It was a beautiful drive off the beaten path. Many boats arrive on this side of the island, as it is situated closer to Turkey than the south shore. Since the EU-Turkish agreement it has become harder for refugees to cross the border at this location. Also, refugees pass through Mytilini where they are housed in temporary camps called Stage 2 before heading to a bigger camp of Moria located near Mytilini. In Moria refugees officially register and are moved by ferry to Athens and from there to Germany. The registration at the camp in Mytilini is much closer to the port where the ferry departs which shortens the waiting time these refugees face.

Going to the north shore feels like going back in time as if 21st century life has not yet arrived in this sleepy town, as the small café I am writing these lines to you seems so welcoming and warm. Here, place many volunteers gather together every night in the local restaurant talking about the events of the morning, to plan better strategies to help out in the sea and to bring some joy to a very not joyful humanitarian situation. 

I met the Israeli team that works at this location and was so surprised to find out how warmly Israelis are welcomed here. One of the defaults of this phenomenal NGO is the collaboration between Arabs and Jews among the IsraAID team. Speaking Arab and Hebrew and English and going back and forward was an amazing experience for me. I am very proud of this work of IsraAID that facilitates such needed coexistence.

As winter approaches and the temperatures are getting lower it is very apparent that refugee arrival is becoming more challenging. The sea was covered with meter high waves when three boats managed to land on shore. The first boat arrived in front of the first stage camp with minor incidents though the passengers were completely soaked up to their waist. 

In the second boat that arrived shortly after, an Iraqi woman had medical emergency. She was rushed to the stage 1 camp medical center. This refugee arrived with her entire family; her husband, four boys and a girl from age 16 to age 5. The three small children needed a female volunteer to help them change into dry clothes. They were worried about their mom and needed support. I guided the children to the changing area where volunteers were ready with everything from dry socks to kids clothing and shores and even toys and stuffed animals. I helped the refugee children choose clothes, get dry and coaxed a smile out of them. The volunteers fixed the girls beautiful hair and helped the boys choose a toy. By the time we finished with the younger children the mom returned with two older brothers so I took family picture of them all. These are the moments of struggle, joy and love on the island of Lesbos.

Happy New Years from Lesbos, Greece

It has been over a week here on the Island of Lesbos since my arrival. I find myself in awe of the situation, the people who save the lives of refugees, the refugees themselves and my small part observing and helping in all of this. Although, war  is terrible and aweful, I have found hope in here. I know how we all talk about peace in the abstract. We hope for peace, we advocate for it. But few if any are in a position to promote it. A lady here recently told me: “Mirit you won’t change anything, we are not here to change” and I must say my experience has taught me she was wrong, that ordinary people can indeed make change.

I have made peace here on the Island of Lesbos in every possible way peace can be made; I have learned other people's languages, about different cultural approaches and I cared. I was not afraid to say who I am and where I am from. I gave a smile to all who needed it. I have made friendships with people from every corner of the world. Yes, I have made friendships with Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqi, Iranian, Afghani, Kurds and I must admit none of them ever said to me anything bad to me when I said I am Israeli.

There was one Syrian woman I spent time with, my age with a child the same age as my own child. She asked me where I was from and I said I am from Israel. She stopped what she was doing and she came to me and hugged me ever so tightly. She said to me "God bless Israel". I was in tears. She was in tears. I really don’t know what is peace if that is not that.

I have so many stories to tell you, not all are easy to tell, not all have happy endings but through many struggles, debates and cultural differences there are important lessons to understand. We are all human. We care for our families, we all need to make a living, to provide and to live a respectful life. We do have different ways to understand each other, different mentalities, different customs, different languages but we all want to feel that we belong. 

יום שישי, 25 בדצמבר 2015

48 hours of intensity (and Susan Sarandon)

Volunteering was mostly about meeting people, seeing new places, and learning from the experience of others who are already here. I must say I felt a little bit misplaced myself, not sure what to do, how I can contribute here and what is my role in all of this. Some people come for few days, some people are here for months and some came to bring supplies for the refugees. 

People come here to volunteer for different reasons although what unifies them when asked is that they all tell me they feel there was no question in their mind that they must help these refugees. The medical team here is amazing and go out of their way to help people in need.

 I met three wonderful Jewish women that came all the way from San Francisco to buy; food, and scarfs and candies to the arriving refugees. Another American family came with supplies gathered by their congregation, which I thought it was just remarkable. There is a medical team and social worker that is highly knowledgeable as is the team director. I live in a downtown apartment with the team, interestingly all the IsraAID team members who are volunteering with me here staying in the apartment define their identity as Palestinians. 

The island looks beautiful with all the Christmas lights and for a moment you might think this is a vacation resort. But then one sees the refugees on the streets and is reminded about the human story of desperation that is taking place here.

I visited the refugee camp of Moria this afternoon. I met a Palestinian family coming from Yarmouk; Father, mother, big brother (19), a sister (7 years old) and one-year-old baby. They came to the wrong camp as they were from Syria and the camp was for only non-Arabic speaking refugees. They asked to see the doctor as the baby was sick and the mom had no diapers or baby supplies with her. UN gave them sleeping bags but the older brother had wet shoes and a wet coat. As the evening came in I could see he was getting cold. The mom could not speak English so she asked me to ask the police officer if the family could see the doctor. I went to the gate with all the family and asked, “Can the doctor see the baby?” The guard told me only the mother and the baby can come inside the camp, the rest have to stay outside. I took them to the doctor and as we were waiting there. Susan Sarandon (the movie star) appeared and the big brother asked me to take the photo with her. It put a big smile on his face as I took the picture. Then he asked ”Mirit can you please take my other sister to her mom? Its getting cold and I would rather have her inside then here with me and Dad?” I went back to the guard and asked him for the second time "Can the brother and the father go with the little girl to her mom?” The guard replied again ”only you and the girl”. I hold the girl's hand as we walk to her mom in the camp. The girl held my hand tight, she was scared to say bye to her father her brother and too scared to go with me to see her mom. I gave her a candy and we walked together to the doctor. I went back again to tell the big brother and father all is well. Then they told me the baby is sick and need medical care so they are going to take her to Greece. The father didn’t want to separate the family so he asked me the last time to ask the guard if they can join his two daughters and his wife. I told him I can only try, I came to the guard I told him as Catholic it is Christmas today, how about bringing the family together? He smiled at me and let them him. They gave me a hug and kissed me on each cheek "Ya Tel-Aviv girl, Salam Alecum Tel-Aviv girl" (Goodbye Tel-Aviv girl).

The human story behind any crisis holds moments of strength and moments of frustration. Two days ago I flew at night, arrived to Lesbos Island in the evening and landed in a beautiful town surrounded by green mountains and blue water. Everything in this charming small town tells the harsh story of the arriving refugees that are everywhere; in the water, in boats, in UN buses, on their way to the refugee camp and in lines to see the doctor, to get food, to register and go by ferry to Athens and from there to Germany. 

Tonight I was helping rescue team, 42 people landed on the shore near a high cliff many women and very small children they came in the cold 40˚F. One refugee was dehydrated and vomiting; we had to give her medical assistant on the shore. The medical team and myself stabilized her and she made it to the bus. There are some amazing good souls working here. It is truly incredible how people from all over the world are coming together for such amazing cause. 

 Some refugees needed blankets, I carried a baby whose mother was too weak to hold him and I gave her water and put a blanket on the baby. Then I went down the cliff to help give infusion to the dehydrated lady. Her children and her husband were there with them the whole time, with my rudimentary Arabic I calm her down and she smiles at me. "El-Kul Quies" I told her, “Everything is going to be fine”. She smiles at me and kisses my hand as the fluids run into to her arm. We had to move her to higher ground to reach the UN bus. We put her on a stretcher we walked for 300 yards from the landing point. We came to a passage and we manged to lift her up and carry her all the way to the bus. They were about 8 men and I was still holding the IV. We came to the bus the medic took the needle out and he checked her vital parameters. Then we helped her to stand up and walk she ended up just fine. Thank God. This was my Christmas Eve December 24. It's 3am now I think I'm going to sleep it was very intense day full of emotions and challenges but there are true peace in my heart. Peace out Greece

יום שני, 21 בדצמבר 2015

Between Flights – The layover

My journey began as my son and myself left from Florida for Israel. How symbolic that my Humanitarian Aid quest takes this path? My son senses we are on the way home, his place of birth and my place of birth, our homeland, as he switches to speaking only Hebrew with me. 
Going to Israel is very meaningful for my son and I. Nothing to do with Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, or as the Holy Land, nothing to do with our Jewish identity or any other aspect of our identity. It's something much more simple than that; my childhood, my mom’s kitchen, my elementary besties, the smells, the neighborhood, my brother, my nieces, the hibiscus in the garden, and the lemon tree.

We use big words like Homeland and Holy Land. Do we even know what that means for the common Israeli who was born and raised for many generations and knows nothing else but being that? My connection with this sliver of land is all I know, I was born, raised and rooted here.
 The journey I embark on is a journey that not only crosses the Atlantic ocean, it goes further than that, it goes to the deep acknowledgment of what it means to feel misplaced. What does it mean to be where you are not from?  I left Israel in 2008 for love, for academic development and to discover what is out there that is different than me, only to reflect and reconnect to where I am from. Along the way I met people from all over the world, I met people I could never have met had I stayed put. And I learned something about the feeling of being misplaced, being an immigrant. Strange how life works,; I was the one who helped acclimate new Russian immigrants as Hebrew teacher back in Israel, and now I've become the one who is being acclimated and naturalized into the American culture as an immigrant myself.

 Immigration, changes countries, takes its toll with its pains and gains. You go out of your bubble, you learn about the other, you try to assimilate, and to bridge cultural understanding and meet new people. It also brings into question all that you know and think and believe. It often means you carry the responsibility to become an ambassador of your own faith and background. 
In my case, being a College Hebrew language teacher has made me a cultural agent, held me accountable for my thoughts on politics, my personal perspective and my views on my country, my culture and my people. Sometimes the pressure on those who immigrate is to assimilate completely, become local and leave their cultural identify behind.
 In a few days I am about to meet many who are about to become new citizens of an as yet to be determined country, sacrificing all they have to find freedom, and look for a better, safer life. I wonder what immigration would mean to them? And how will my personal journey benefit them as they seek new shelters?

יום שבת, 12 בדצמבר 2015

Hi everyone. 

Knowing there is someone there who cares about what I have to say, think, and reflect upon shows me that humans have not completely “lost it”. While writing these lines, I feel so relaxed and so peaceful, as if nothing can spoil this perfect moment of tranquility. I lay down in my living room, looking through double glass doors at the backyard evergreen beyond my porch wondering when snow will fall and what birds do when it gets so cold…My house is quiet, the cat is sleeping, and I am listening to Daniela Andrade. Nothing can beat that peaceful feeling of finishing the semester, and entering the weekend filled with good food, friends, lighting Hanukah candles and finding the spirit compels me to write here to you all that I have in my mind. 
As words don’t come easy to me, I need to be carfule and ruminate before I write.
So, I have decided to start from the beginning, not my beginning not my parents beginning but rather my great ancestors beginning, my Jewish recollection you may say.  

We wandered for 2000 years but we no longer do because we finally have a place in the world, a corner, and a spot to call home. We nurture it and we care for it and we develop that haven we call Israel because we know, we sure do know from our historical recollection that this is not to be taken for granted that this can vanish. And we know very well that this place we call homeland, the land of our fathers was there to protect us, as we were all refugees, we were immigrants we were rejected, executed, excluded and deported. Gates were too often closed for us, the world shut itself from us, we were different, we were not legal, we were refugee Jews, we were out there seeking safe haven, looking for home, safe shore safe home. Not even a century has gone by. And where are we today?

It makes me so proud that we succeeded despite years of persecution. Although gassed, shot and burned in pits the Israeli people have became successful. Once refugees, now free, independent, self-determined, innovative and dare I say flourishing.
 After all our ancestors were once refugees, fleeing from the desert in Sudan, fleeing on boats in the Black Sea, fleeing Nazis, grateful to be accepted somewhere. No one, NO country, not one single country said come to us, we will embrace you save you from horror. 

Israeli recollection goes straight to these ideas when it comes time to rescue those in need. We were brought up with these values, doing  good deeds, caring for those less fortunate is not a strange notion for us, it is not only part of our history it is very much part of our core. 

When I am asked why I am about to fly to the other side of the world, leaving my loving son at his grandparents house for two weeks, leaving lovely Ithaca, my relaxed home and my sleeping cat, I have to refresh their memory, I have to remind them who I am, a Jewish girl third generation of Jewish refugees. I have to remind theme that we were different; we were shamed, we were not accepted because others feared strangers too much. I have to remind them that we were strangers once. 

I will finish it here for now with a few lines from an Israeli song I have been chanting to myself lately …” A man needs to have integrity, a small space in the world [land], unforgettable love and true voice when praying [feeling understood/feeling heard). And a perfect moment to give and take and not… to be afraid of the fear.”