An IsraAid volunteer (right) shakes the hand of a woman staying at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. An IsraAid volunteer (right) shakes the hand of a woman staying at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. An IsraAid volunteer (right) shakes the hand of a woman staying at a refugee camp in Lesbos, Greece. (Photo: IsraAid)

Meet the world's rescue team

From one natural disaster to another, IsraAid is there. How do they do it?

You've heard the phrase "boots on the ground" many times, no doubt. It's been used to describe getting a handle on a situation in a way you can't achieve by sitting behind a desk.

But few circles are able to use the phrase as literally as IsraAid does. From one catastrophe to the next, one life-altering natural and manmade disaster after another, IsraAid is there, delivering its own brand of relief, support and sustainability in a time when such things are painfully scarce.

IsraAid workers present a gift basket to a resident in Houston, Texas, after catastrophic floods damaged his home. IsraAid workers present a gift basket to a resident in Houston, Texas, after catastrophic floods damaged his home. (Photo: IsraAid)

IsraAid is a nonprofit organization based in Tel Aviv, Israel, with one mission in mind: help the most vulnerable people in the world facing life's most harrowing trials. And by help, they don't just mean a little cleanup here, a little heavy lifting there. Each deployment comes with the goal of providing long-term support to survivors: from crisis to reconstruction and rehabilitation, and eventually, to sustainable living.

Navonel Glick is IsraAid's 30-year-old co-CEO. "I'd like to think we are helping people help themselves, so that when we have to leave, they are stronger and more capable than they were before we arrived," he told From The Grapevine. "I know it's a corny proverb, but I think about the idea that you don't give them a fish, you teach them how to fish."

IsraAid CEO Navonel Glick (left) meets with a volunteer at a rescue site. Navonel Glick (left) meets with a volunteer at a rescue site. Glick has been involved with IsraAid for more than 10 years. (Photo: IsraAid)

Glick runs IsraAid with fellow Israeli Yotam Polizer, a longtime social activist. Much of their funding comes from government sources like the U.N., but a recent boost from the San Francisco-based Koret Foundation has allowed the group a measure of leeway in dispatching rescue teams. "We are very, very grateful for that support," Glick said.

Before taking on a leadership role, Glick's capacity as program director took him to the typhoon-stricken Philippines, Ebola-ravaged Sierra Leone and war-torn Iraq. At each location, he met people in the depths of despair and hopelessness. He cleaned up debris, dressed wounds, reunited families and mourned the dead. He helped children transition back to school after their classrooms flooded. He worked with local partners to make sure citizens had access to clean water, to avoid further public health threats.

In 2016, his efforts were rewarded. He was one of six young people to receive the prestigious Muhammad Ali Humanitarian Award, an honor he called "a dream come true."

Navonel Glick has worked disaster relief around the world, including in Japan, Kenya, the the Philippines and the United States. Navonel Glick has worked disaster relief around the world, including in Japan, Kenya, the Philippines and the United States. (Photo: Courtesy photo)

A year later, those efforts are being tested in a big way. With such unprecedented destruction, keeping boots on the ground is remarkably difficult for a group of volunteers with headquarters half a world away. There was Hurricane Harvey, unleashing Texas-sized floods. There was Irma, obliterating the Florida Keys. Then came Maria, bringing Puerto Rico's infrastructure to its knees. And somewhere in between, an earthquake toppled buildings in Mexico and killed hundreds.

In total, IsraAid has relief aid dispatched to seven emergencies right now. And that's not counting the crises that don't always make the front page, where IsraAid continues to provide support: refugee camps in Germany and Greece, earthquakes in Nepal and Italy, flooding in Louisiana and West Virginia, a cyclone in Vanuatu.

 IsraAID volunteers pass bricks along to clear the rubble leftover from the earthquake that shook Nepal on April 25, 2015. (Photo: IsraAID/Mickey Noam Alon) IsraAID volunteers pass bricks along to clear the rubble leftover from the earthquake that shook Nepal on April 25, 2015. (Photo: IsraAID/Mickey Noam Alon)

It's enough to make even the hardest hearts soft, the bravest souls retreat. For Glick, it's the hazards of an unpredictable job that finds him at once gratified and exhausted. It's a far departure from where he started, but make no mistake: It's exactly where he wants to be.

And just where is that, exactly? When we caught up with him, Glick was between meetings at headquarters in Tel Aviv, adjacent to the Beit Hatfusot Museum. His office is a flutter of activity, with colleagues popping in and out to firm up details and go over logistics. They just sent a team to the Caribbean island of Dominica, also hard hit by Maria but often lost in the media frenzy. When do they land? What do they need? Where will they go?

Glick is the one with the answers.

"Disasters are something we have no control over, something that comes out of nowhere," said the Israel-born, Canada-raised Glick, who once aspired to a career in biology. "It can get very expensive. But we always have to be ready."

A volunteer knocks down drywall in a flood-damaged home in Baton Rouge, La. A volunteer knocks down drywall in a flood-damaged home in Baton Rouge, La. (Photo: Courtesy IsraAid)

All told, IsraAid is 300 strong. It's a mix of professionals and volunteers who serve as medics, search and rescue squads, post-trauma experts and community mobilizers. Chief among the group's focus, however, is building long-term survival skills. Literally picking up the pieces of a destroyed home is one thing. But when you're 11 years old and suddenly homeless because an earthquake leveled your house, you need more than a warm bed and a drink of water. You need to learn how to survive.

"First aid for shock is particularly important after earthquakes," Glick explained. "Because if you go through something like that, you literally cannot trust the ground beneath your feet. You think it's going to happen again."

IsraAid workers often stay for weeks, even months, after a disaster to help out. And sometimes, in the face of crisis, ingenuity strikes. During catastrophic earthquakes in Nepal in 2015, doctors volunteering on behalf of IsraAid fashioned nebulizers out of bicycle tire pumps to help ailing citizens breathe easier.

The IsraAID medical team treating an elderly patient in Nepal after the earthquake. IsraAID's medical team treats an elderly patient in Nepal after the earthquake. (Photo: Courtesy IsraAID)

“Disasters bring out the best and worst in people," Glick said in 2016. "You see the high of incredible selflessness and willingness to help and then the low of pain and desperation. It’s a constant emotional up and down, with no end to the ‘coulda, woulda, shoulda’ questions you ask yourself.”

One of the first things IsraAid workers do when they're deployed to a disaster is to set up safe spaces for survivors to go for a host of trauma-recovery treatment options. Those include art and music therapy, temporary schools, support groups and first aid and food supply stations. Before they arrive, they network with anyone and everyone they can – local government, fellow nonprofits, corporations, small businesses – to spread the word.

"It's all about community mobilization. That is so, so important," Glick said.

IsraAid volunteer meets with survivors after Earthquake in Mexico. A volunteer speaks to an earthquake survivor in Morelos, Mexico. (Photo: IsraAid)

Amid such extreme disasters befalling so many parts of the world, the onus is on Glick to make sure his teams are well-equipped to handle every situation they walk into. Many times that involves rotating out a couple workers to prevent burnout.

"As the saying goes, 'Do no harm,'" Glick told us. "That goes for our team, too."

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