LESBOS, Greece – Manal Shehade was tending to refugees who had just reached the shores of Lesbos, Greece when one of them, a Syrian man, heard her Palestinian-accented Arabic and asked where she was from. She said Nazareth and his eyes lit up.
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Suddenly Shehade, the 29-year-old leader of IsraAID, an Israeli humanitarian aid team on Lesbos, was sharing an intimate moment with a Palestinian refugee whose family was also originally from Nazareth, and who, after living in Syria for most of his life, found himself homeless, again.
“We sat there on the beach of a Greek island looking over photos of Nazareth on my cellphone,” she recalls. “It was very emotional – it was like finding a bit of home for both of us.”
International organizations and NGOs from dozens of countries have congregated on Lesbos since it became the most popular gateway to Europe for Syrian and other refugees, with over half a million landing on the island in the last four months of 2015 alone.
But the volunteers from IsraAID, which provides emergency aid worldwide, are different than the others. It is the only team made up of Muslims, Jews and Christians, people who define themselves as Israeli or Palestinian or both, as well as a few Americans. Many of them speak Arabic as a mother tongue and some of the Jewish volunteers also speak it as a second language.
“We’re odd ducks compared to the other volunteers on the island, most of whom tend to be tall and blond,” quips Shehade, who is neither.
The encounter between Israeli aid workers and Arab refugees has produced some surprising and, at times, ironic scenarios on both sides.
For the Arab members of the team, most of whom define themselves as Palestinian, being on Lesbos has proven to be an especially powerful, and sometimes painful, experience ridden with dilemmas.
Just being asked where they are from evokes a wide repertoire of answers – from Israel, to Palestine, to the more ambiguous Al-Kuds, the Arabic name of Jerusalem.
“Don’t be afraid, everything’s alright,” Molham Zreqe tells the refugees, in Arabic, as their boat approaches the rocky coastline after the short but perilous 10-kilometer journey from Turkey. He, too, is often asked where he is from.
“When I say I’m from Israel some Syrians ask me if they can get asylum in Israel,” recounts Zreqe, a 22-year-old medic from Kafr Kana, a town near Nazareth. He admits he was initially surprised by the question.
Malek Abu Grara, another member of the IsraAID team, also 22, says he was asked this as well, particularly at the height of the exodus, when thousands were arriving daily.
“People who get here no longer care what others think,” he says. “They just want to live.”
“The Syrian refugees have seen their whole world turned upside down,” says Yotam Polizer, global partnerships director of IsraAID, drawing from what the team’s doctors have relayed. “The people they expected to protect them, their leaders, are massacring them. So the fact that Israelis, their supposed enemies, end up helping them is just one more shift in their already shaken view of everything.”
The refugees’ deep disappointment in the Arab world is something IsraAID volunteer Abdalodod Abu Shhab witnessed firsthand in one particularly poignant encounter. A registered nurse from the Bedouin town of Rahat, Abu Shhab recalls watching an elderly Syrian man debark from a boat in Lesbos one day. “He was talking to himself, almost deliriously. I could hear him cursing the Arabs all over the world who had abandoned him – he sounded broken,” recalls Abu Shhab.
“I hugged him and said ‘Il’hamdelila, al-salaam.’ Thank God, you have arrived safely,” he says. “He was shocked that I understood him. He said that he had never expected an Arab to welcome him.”
Facing criticism, feeling ambivalence
Not one of the IsraAID volunteers recalls receiving criticism from any refugee about their Israeli connection. “If it ever bothered anyone, I would tell them that they are free to be treated by someone else,” says Abu Shhab. “But that has never happened.”
In fact, the only people on Lesbos who have ever given the IsraAID team members a hard time – and even those instances have been rare – are other volunteers.
Richard Lapin, an American-born doctor who made aliyah five years ago, has been the recipient of a few such slights.
“Once an Irish professor stopped my car to say: ‘I find your presence here disgusting – it’s nothing but propaganda,’” recalls Lapin. In another instance, a volunteer spat at the photographer accompanying him.
Perhaps the most bizarre such encounter took place right inside the water as Lapin – who speaks Arabic, as well as Hebrew and English – was helping Syrian refugees out of a boat. The members of a Muslim NGO – which has since left the island – said to the refugees, in Arabic: “Why are you letting those Jews help you?” recalls Lapin, 49, who is on his third volunteer mission in Lesbos.
Other volunteers have kinder words. “I have the utmost respect for the Israelis who are here, especially the Jewish volunteers from Israel who are helping people whom they believe may be their enemies,” says Neda Kadri, an American volunteer from Detroit, whose father is Palestinian and mother Syrian.
“In fact, when I find myself, an Arab American, sitting at a table having lunch with an Israeli medical student, an American Jewish volunteer and a Syrian refugee – I think that if there were more tables like this there would probably be much less conflict,” Kadri says.
But some of the Arab members of the team are subjected to stinging criticism – not from refugees or volunteers, but from their own friends and acquaintances.
“I posted a status on my Facebook page about being here on the island with IsraAID,” recalls Abu Shhab. “A lot of people reacted angrily because they felt I am representing Israel. It sparked a big debate,” he says, echoing what some of the Arab members of the team say they too encountered, but prefer not to discuss.
You are accused of contributing to Israeli propaganda,” says another member.
IsraAID director Shachar Zahavi, who founded the organization in 2001, rebukes the charge of propaganda. "We are not a political organization and we are not a government organization. We work in 17 countries, with support from bodies like UNICEF,” he says. But he adds: “We are an Israeli organization, and we are not ashamed of that."
Zahavi’s dream is “to make IsraAID into a brand” for Israel, an international address for emergency aid. “Just like OXFAM is associated with Britain, and Doctors Without Borders is associated with France, I want IsraAID to be synonymous with Israel,” says Zahavi.
Most Arab members of the team have had to deal with their own ambivalence about being part of such a mission.
“We lived through the Nakba – we know what it is like to lose everything,” says Abu Shhab, using the Palestinian term meaning “catastrophe” for Israel’s founding in 1948. Abu Shhab has relatives living in Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan. “I know what Syrians feel when they leave their homes without ever knowing whether they will be able to come back,” he says.
Abu Shhab says he would have liked to have helped Syrian refugees through an Arab organization, rather than an Israeli one. In fact, a past volunteer for IsraAID, an Arab doctor from Haifa, founded another NGO that has been operating on Lesbos since November. Abu Shhab applied, but never heard back from that organization.
Still, he says, he is grateful for the opportunity that IsraAID gave him.
‘There are barely any Arabs responding’
One thing that Abu Shhab and the few other Arab volunteers on the island share is a sense of shame over the tepid Arab response to the refugee crisis. It’s something they feel acutely on Lesbos, as thousands of refugees stream in daily to be met by hundreds of well-meaning volunteers, most of whom don’t speak Arabic.
That’s why Abu Shhab found the words of the delirious Syrian refugee – who had lost faith in fellow Arabs – particularly haunting.
“I have not encountered any Arab organization since I have been here,” says Abu Shhab, who has spent two months on the island. The handful of individual Arab volunteers he has met come from Canada, the United States, Denmark and other Western countries, he notes, and don’t speak Arabic well.
“We Arabs should be the first ones here – we are directly connected to this crisis,” he says. “Where are the Saudis? Where are the other Arab countries? Why don’t we see them here? They have no presence, nothing to even suggest that they are interested in what is happening to the Syrian people.”
Most of the Arab volunteers feel uncomfortable talking about this in public. But among themselves, it comes up often.
Kadri has been working as a volunteer on Lesbos for several months, single-handedly raising funds and providing aid to hundreds of individual refugees.
“I’ve been on this island since December 17 ... And the amount of Syrian, or Arab, for that matter, volunteers I’ve come across can be counted on two hands. It’s embarrassing. Really,” she wrote on her Facebook page recently, noting that she’s met dozens of Danes, Swedes and Spaniards, and pointing to a shortage of translators.
The fine line walked by the Arab members of the Israeli team was palpable one night at an Arabic-food restaurant on the island packed with Syrian refugees. Back from a long day of helping refugees on the shore, an Arab team member was still wearing his blue and white shirt with the IsraAID logo when he entered the eatery to grab a bite.
“They’re all giving me looks,” he said nervously, as he removed the shirt and put it back on inside out so the logo wouldn’t show.
Whatever awkwardness some feel about representing Israel, however, is dwarfed by what they see as the overwhelming need to come to the aid of the refugees, which is the common motivation of virtually all the aid workers on the island, regardless of nationality.
“Thirty years from now when people talk about this, I will be able to say that I was there, I saw it happening,” says team leader Shehade. “And hopefully I did some good.”