In Typhoon-ravaged Philippines, Jewish Relief Effort Comes Full Circle

Yardena Schwartz
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Yardena Schwartz

When disaster relief expert Danny Pins arrived in the Philippines this week, it wasn’t his typical aid visit. Pins is on a mission of gratitude, repaying the ultimate debt. 

“The Filipino people saved my family,” says Pins, of Teaneck, New Jersey, looking at the devastation surrounding him. “This is an opportunity to give something back to help them in their time of distress and sorrow.”

Exactly 75 years ago, Pins’ mother and grandparents fled Nazi Germany and took refuge in the Philippines. His family was among more than 1,000 European Jews who found a safe haven in the island nation during the Holocaust. They were part of a historic rescue effort taken on by Filipino president Manuel Quezon, in partnership with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) to shelter Jewish refugees at a time when few others would. 

“The Philippines opened its doors when everybody else closed their doors,” said Pins. “If it wasn’t for the Philippines, I wouldn’t be here.”

Today, Pins is part of another rescue effort by the JDC in the Philippines. This time, he is leading a team of disaster experts from the United States and Australia to deliver life-saving medical care and emergency relief to the ever-growing number of typhoon victims.

To date, Typhoon Haiyan has killed more than 4,000 Filipinos, injured nearly 19,000, and 1,600 people are still missing. The powerful storm, named Yolanda in the Philippines, has left more than 4 million people homeless.

The JDC is just one of many international relief organizations that have descended upon the ravaged islands of the Philippines in the wake of the typhoon. But unlike the other missions, the urgency to act is heightened by a sense of appreciation − and not just for the brave acts of the Philippines during the Holocaust.

“The Philippines also voted for the UN resolution to create the State of Israel,” notes JDC chief executive Alan H. Gill. “So there is a sense of indebtedness and gratitude for the people of the Philippines, and that’s why it makes it even more of a moral imperative to join forces and help give relief in this terrible tragedy.”

Since the typhoon touched down in the Philippines nearly two weeks ago, the JDC has raised $1.2 million for its aid efforts. The organization expects that figure to rise as more donations come in from JDC’s Jewish Federation partners. 

When Philippine president Quezon welcomed European Jews during World War II, he was quoted as saying, “The people of the Philippines will have in the future every reason to be glad that when the time of need came, their country was willing to extend a welcoming hand.”

Today, Pins and his team of experts are fulfilling that prophecy.

When they arrived in Manila, they worked with the Philippine government to distribute emergency supplies such as food, water and sanitation items to victims. In devastated Cebu province they delivered toys and books to schoolchildren, and provided medical care and equipment to local hospitals. In Bogo City, they assisted in the life-saving work of the IDF field hospital, which has received much of its equipment from the JDC. The team will soon be traveling to Roxas City in the Capiz Province, which sustained heavy damage, to identify new local agencies to partner with for long-term rehabilitation programs. 

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Philippine president Manuel Quezon visiting the Jewish community of Manila on April 23, 1940.Credit: Courtesy of the JDC
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Rescue teams in Manila loading hundreds of sacks of aid donated by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) on Wednesday November 20, 2013.Credit: Courtesy of the JDC
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American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s (JDC) Danny Pins in Manila helping a Filipino soldier deliver a sack of aid to victims of Typhoon Haiyan, on Wednesday November 20, 2013.Credit: Courtesy of the JDC

While the team’s focus at the moment is on emergency aid, their goal is to ensure that once they leave the Philippines, strong ties are in place to continue the work they’ve begun on the ground. In all of the JDC’s disaster relief missions, about one third of the aid goes to emergency efforts, while the rest goes to local sustainable projects. 

In Haiti, for example, after the 2010 earthquake, the JDC’s relief team started a rehab center and a prosthetic clinic that is now run entirely by Haitians. This working model establishes local sustainability, so that when the JDC leaves a disaster zone, there are local organizations and people who can continue to run their programs indefinitely.

In its current mission, the JDC is working with several organizations on the ground, including the Afya Foundation and the Catholic Relief Services. As Pins and his team continue their visit through next week, they will meet with more prospective partners. They are also engaging the local Jewish community, estimated at about 1,300 people who predominantly live in Manila, to get involved in what is expected to be a very long road to recovery.

For Pins, who has been with the JDC for 16 years, giving back to those in need is in his blood. His mother, now retired and living in Jerusalem, also worked for the JDC and took part in aid missions in Rwanda and Uganda. Being there for the Filipino people means the world to her.

“My mother is very, very excited,” he says. “She wanted me to take her in my suitcase.”

JDC team chief Danny Pins distributing toys and books to schoolchildren at an elementary school in devastated Daanbantayan in Northern Cebu. Credit: Courtesy of the JDC

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