Representatives of Jewish and Israeli non-governmental humanitarian aid organizations arrived on the island of Lesbos, Greece, on Thursday to distribute 1.5 tons of relief supplies collected in Israel to refugees suffering in unexpected snow and sub-zero temperatures.
Code named Operation Blossom of Hope, the collection and delivery of the relief supplies was coordinated by Amaliah, a New York-based organization which provides aid to Syrians and is trying to help establish a safe zone in southern Syria, and iAID, a new humanitarian initiative by former IsraAID founding director Shachar Zahavi.
According to Zahavi, iAID connects innovation and technology to the international humanitarian aid scene. It is designed to offer sustainable solutions and fills gaps that international aid agencies cannot provide, including mapping refugee movements, clean water, and clean energy.
Team leader for the relief effort Rabbi Shu Eliovson said Israeli volunteers collected supplies in response to a request issued to Zahavi’s iAID organization by several Syrian refugee families in Greece.
“We received the list of what was needed on January 13 and in five days of around-the-clock efforts, we had 1.5 tons of supplies collected from all over the country, sorted, packed and ready to be shipped to Lesbos,” Eliovson told The Times of Israel from the Athens airport Wednesday evening in transit to Lesbos. Upon reaching the island he was scheduled to join Amaliah founder and CEO Moti Kahana and other relief team members.
The request made to iAID was specifically for critically needed winter clothing items such as coats, rain jackets, sweaters, trousers, boots, warm socks, sleeping bags and blankets.
62,000 Syrian and other migrants are stranded in Greece following the closure of borders by European countries to the north. Some 10,000 are in the Aegean islands, including on Lesbos, where there are currently 5,491 refugees.
Moria, the island’s main facility for refugees was built to house only 2,500, leaving many in flimsy tents that have collapsed under heavy snowfall. Panos Navrozidis, country director of the International Rescue Committee in Greece, told The Guardian that the refugees are facing “a life-or-death situation.”
Approximately 50 Israelis helped in the enterprise. Members of the Derech Prat high school leadership movement did most of the collecting, sorting and boxing of the goods while volunteers from the What is Needed grassroots movement, founded by Gilit Kaufman and Nitzan Waisberg, coordinated operations.
We Cannot Stand Silent Anymore, a volunteer organization founded by Ruti Doron, addressed shipping logistics and cut through layers of red tape to enable the massive shipment of winter gear to be cleared by customs at Ben-Gurion International Airport in record time.
“On a logical level it was total chutzpah to take this on in such a crazy timeframe. But we had a start-up mentality. It was a crisis situation and we got it done,” said Eliovson, a tech and social entrepreneur who lives in Israel’s Negev region.
Amaliah, which paid for the shipment of the supplies, looked into different options for getting them to Lesbos. Shipping them by boat or flying them by private jet were considered, but they ended up being sent over to Athens on an Aegean Airlines cargo flight.
From there, a number of aid organizations already on the ground in Greece helped the Amaliah-iAID group get the donated goods to the refugee camps. Allied Aid assisted with operations involved in getting the shipment to the Salvation Army of Greece for distribution.
After the relief supplies were transported to Lesbos by truck and ferry, the Salvation Army distributed it to different refugee facilities with the help of Lifting Hands International, which in turn took the Israelis around the island to meet with refugees and aid workers to get a first-hand sense of the dire situation.
Kahana, considered by some to be controversial for his maverick methods of rescuing Middle Eastern Jews from war-torn areas, was moved to help the refugees in Lesbos when he saw photos of the desperate conditions there.
“I grew up very, very poor in Jerusalem. When my friend Shachar Zahavi, the founder of iAID, showed me the pictures of homeless Syrian children freezing in the snow, it reminded me of images of my own family in our hardest years. I immediately turned Amaliah’s resources towards this cry for help,” he said.
Eliovson said that he and the rest of the team would be staying in Lesbos for a short while after the aid was distributed to see how else Amaliah and iAid could be of assistance.
“We have a moral responsibility here. We want to help bring peace to the people of Syria. We want them to be able to restore their lives. We know what it’s like for the world to be silent and we need to wake up the world to what is going on,” he said.
Eliovson added that he was not only proud of his fellow Israelis for heeding this plea for assistance, but also pleased that people everywhere are starting to finally see that the refugees, like the ones freezing in Lesbos, are not “the bad guys.”
“It’s time to separate the true horror and tragedy of all of this from the politics,” he said.