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Director’s Blog:  Alumni in Action: Working to help Syrian Refugees

While much of the discourse in conventional and social media on the UN Security Council Resolution 2334 has been about whether it was an unwarranted attack on Israel’s right to exist or a much needed rebuff of Israel’s settlement policy, Ambassador Samantha Power’s moving words on the lack of Security Council resolve and action in places like South Sudan and Syria were what echoed in my ear:

Earlier this month, this Council could not muster the will to adopt the simplest of resolutions calling for a seven-day pause in the savage bombardment of innocent civilians, hospitals, and schools in Aleppo.

How many times since World War II has the cry, “Never Again”, become just an empty phrase? The world stands by as thousands of men, women and children are slaughtered in Syria. The current Russian brokered ceasefire is, without a doubt, a much needed respite but how long will it hold, and if it does, what does it portend for the Middle East? Will Pax Russia really bring safety and stability to the Middle East? Will it prevent the next bloodbath?

Despite the historical animosity between Israel and Syria and the tension between Syria and its other neighbors, it is difficult to stand by and watch as your neighbors suffer. Recently, Prime Minister Netanyahu announced that Israel would care for victims of the civil war from Aleppo. Though for some time Israel has cared for wounded Syrians who came to the Israeli line in the Golan Heights, this is the first time the Prime Minister has openly declared Israel’s willingness to transfer wounded Syrians from the heart of the conflict to Israeli hospitals. In a sense, this is a small act of human kindness, but one that I believe will resonate around the world.

The Arava Institute’s mission is to advance cross-border environmental cooperation in the face of political conflict, but when our alumni leave the Institute, their desire to make the world a better place is not always limited to environmental issues. For some, the Syrian refugee crisis has become a major focus of their efforts.

The following are a few brief posts from Arava Institute alumni who are working to ease the suffering of some Syrian refugees:

I have been working with Refugees for the past 3 years. I started working with the International Federation of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent as a human resources officer. At that time, I had created a strong connection with the refugees, especially workers. We kept in touch even after the IFRC project shut down.  Later on, I went back to the Camp, as a shelter assistant with the Norwegian Refugee Council. A warm feeling comes to me every time I see my friends and they remember me. In addition to that, I have made new friends who call me once in a while to check on me and I do the same. I could say a lot more, but what really matters is that every night when I go to sleep, I know that down in my heart I have done my part in helping people in need.
Zaid Balous from Zarqa-Azraq Jordan, studied at the Arava Institute in 2013 – 2014
I help Syrian refugees through my work at the Swedish International Development Agency. I am involved in a number of projects related to water management, livelihood opportunities for refugees and combating gender based violence in refugee camps and host communities.
Yosra Al Bakkar from Amman, Jordan, was a student at the Arava Institute in 2010-2011, and is a member of the Friends of the Arava Institute Board of Trustees
In the last 2 years, a group of friends and I have initiated / founded 3 projects, but before writing about the projects, I have to zoom out and explain the big picture.  I live in Izmir, a coastal city in the western part of Turkey.  In Izmir there are more than 100,000 registered refugees and there are few thousands non-registered refugees who are living in a makeshift camp and work as seasonal workers in agricultural.  Two years ago I decided to get involved and help people in need. The fact that I know English, Arabic and Turkish, the law, and have a network of friends and colleagues, enabled me to offer valuable assistance. The projects I am working on are:

  • REVI is an independent group of volunteers, who organize the activities for the volunteers and the families we help. REVI has two kindergartens at the momentwith more than 100 children attending. We hired 4 Syrian teachers to take care of the kids and teach them Arabic. The volunteers do a lot of activities with the kids.
  • KAPILAR (Doors in Turkish) is a community center in the middle of the Basmane Neighborhood. We renovated an old building and started the center. The space became a hub for initiatives in the city and displaced people living in the city (mostly Syrians). We run many different activities with both the kids and the adults.
  • MEDVINT: In the last 6 month, I became more involved with a medical group which provides medical assistance to refugees in the camp. Through Medvint, I am trying to start a new project in the camp, to build more safe, clean and hygienic toilets.
Bara Wahbeh from Amman, Jordan now living in Izmir Turkey, studied at the Arava Institute in 2009-2010
I ran a couple of different programs for a large international organization, working with non-camp Syrian refugees in the local community. Because the city is quite close to the border (Daesh fighters were in and out of town all the time) and I was working in the community, it was decided that for security reasons I would go by a different name so people did not know my background.  During the 8 months I was in Turkey, I oversaw emergency cash assistance to some 1,500 vulnerable families, designed and established a livelihood counseling center and created a training program and activities so Syrians could get jobs. I also oversaw social cohesion activities to bring together Syrian refugees and the local Turkish host community. The last part was the most Arava Institute related. The experience in the Peace-building Leadership Seminar (PLS) and working through issues with Israelis, Palestinians, Jordanians, and other communities was very useful and relevant in helping to find common ground between Syrians and Turks. While by no means solving the issues, facilitating interaction and creating opportunities for engagement so that each side could see the other as human, hopefully helped to quell some of the tensions in their local community. My staff was made up of both Turks and Syrians, many of them refugees themselves, from all parts of the country. Patience and sensitivity to working with other kinds of people was essential in this role.
Tova Scherr from Williamstown, Massachusetts, has also lived in Israel, Jordan and Turkey, studied at the Arava Institute in 2005

These are some of our alumni making a difference in the face of this major humanitarian crisis. Their commitment and hard work gives us hope.

We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Elie Wiesel

David Lehrer

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