By Stephanie Brown
There are a lot of numbers being thrown around in the Syrian refugee crisis. Six million people forced out of their homes. Two million driven out of the country. Tens of thousands more crossing the border everyday.
Syria has been locked in a civil war since March 2011, when a series of clashes between police and anti-government protesters led to the deaths of at least 70 people. In July of this year, the UN estimated that the Syrian civil war had caused over 100,000 deaths. More than 6,500 of those were children.
Those who flee the violence become refugees. They leave everything behind to face hunger, disease, and poverty. They raise their families in tents, with little more to rely on than donations and goodwill. But for the 545 thousand Syrian refugees living in Jordan, help has been coming from an unexpected ally: Israel.
Israel and Syria have been engaged in their own on-and-off-again conflict for half a century. Their most recent dispute concerns the Syrian government’s alliance with the Lebanon-based resistance movement Hezbollah. Several countries have classified Hezbollah as a terrorist group.
But none of that matters to the small group of Israeli volunteers quietly distributing rice, beans, blankets, soap, and other goods to Syrian refugees in Jordanian camps. The volunteers are members of IsraAID, an Israel-based NGO that provides disaster relief and humanitarian aid around the world.
“We don’t come as representatives of [Israeli Prime Minister] Netanyahu, or of a party, or of the government. We come because we are people who want to do humanitarian work,” IsraAID volunteer and photographer Mickey Alon told The Times of Israel last month.
At the same time, Alon and the other IsraAID volunteers can’t ignore the history between Israel and Syria. Although the refugees aren’t worried about where the aid comes from, a Jordanian NGO director told The Times, “the regime inside [Syria], they blackmail them if they know they are supported by Israel.” Advertising IsraAID’s presence would also be dangerous for the volunteers themselves and for their Jordanian partners, who might be seen as Israeli sympathizers.
To minimize the risk, the workers hand out supplies in blank purple bags, with no reference to Israel or IsraAID anywhere. Most of the people involved with or assisted by IsraAID have chosen to remain anonymous to protect themselves.
Despite the dangers, the volunteers and their partners remain focused on their goal: helping people in need. “We are concerned for their livelihood. That’s the first thought,” the director of one of IsraAID’s partner organizations told The Times.
Although it seems a simple thing, it’s something that too often gets lost amid politics and nationalism, or buried in lists of faceless numbers. Wars are fought between ideologies, but individuals pay the price. In Jordan, Israeli volunteers and Syrian refugees are coming together simply as people.
“For us, this has nothing to do with politics at home,” the director explained. “It’s about how can we, as people in a difficult situation, where there is animosity between governments, how can we – Jewish and Christian, humanitarian workers and people – make a difference?”
It’s a good question, and one that activists around the world have been trying to answer for centuries. But for the director, and for the other volunteers in Jordan, the answer in this case is simple: “I’ll tell you how: bag by bag.”
(Photo by UNHCR / B. Sokol)
- For Syrian refugees in Jordan, aid from Israel comes in a whisper (timesofisrael.com)
- Israeli group quietly feeding Syrian refugees in Jordan (jpost.com)
- Israelis anonymously aiding Syrian refugees in Jordan (washingtontimes.com)