My Work with IsraAID: When Tikkun Olam Became Actions and Not Words

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Dr. Iris Adler reflects on her experience working with IsraAid to provide humanitarian relief and medical assistance to Syrian refugees in Lesvos, Greece.

This article is featured in the November edition of The Slice, a monthly digest created in partnership with Tablet Magazine that offers news, stories, ideas and opportunities—with a Jewish twist.

There is a tremendous contrast between the smells of the island—salt water, festive restaurants with their abundance of smoked and grilled fish—and the scent at the edge of the water from where the Syrian asylum seekers emerge after a long journey.

Some of them had their houses bombed years ago and have been homeless and on the road ever since. In the face of such palpable hardship, it was difficult to hold back tears of physical and emotional exhaustion—the empathy I felt for the 3,000 to 5,000 individuals who daily came to the shore in small boats after a protracted and dangerous journey. They were tears of pain (we had about two cases of drowning every week, mainly children) and tears of joy (they were safe now and we could give them the first aid, medical help, the food and water that they needed so desperately).

I applied to be a part of IsraAID, an Israeli-based humanitarian aid agency that responds to emergency crises and engages in international development around the world, at the beginning of this year. As I was completing medical school and an internship at one of the local hospitals, I felt compelled to do humanitarian work, to make a change in this world. There will be enough time later to continue with "normal life," so when IsraAID called and told me they had a spot on a six-person team to go to Lesvos, Greece, I was happy to take it.

My team was divided into two types of people, doctors and psychologists. The social workers and psychologists would wait in the refugee camps to treat the people. We would camp at the beach and help the individuals as they got off their boats and struggled to the shore. It was 24/7 work.

The refugees stepped onto the beach in sodden coats, their only possessions (if they had any possessions) would be stored in an equally wet bag. They had nothing – families, moms suckling babies, emerging out of the water with nothing.

The days were emotionally and physical demanding. There was one particularly poignant day when in the morning we buried an 8-month-old baby who we had tried to save but succumbed to his ailments. Hours later, we delivered a child on that same beach – such a beautiful baby. The contrast of the funeral and the birth was so emotional. It was not an easy experience.

But somehow, during the three weeks that I was in Lesvos, I felt like I myself was born to do this. I was raised at the feet of my great grandparents, both of whom were also doctors that worked with underprivileged patients. I was brought up on the messages of tikkun olam, repairing the world. Though I don't believe I am unique; tikkun olam is something inherent in our Jewish culture and values and education. I have become even more aware of this fact this year, since becoming involved with ROI Community. I have met many young, Jewish leaders from Israel and across the globe who, like me, want to put words into action,  and better the world.

There was something else that happened on the island, too, that I hadn’t expected. For many of the refugees, I was the first Israeli they had ever met. They were raised on the rhetoric that I am their enemy and suddenly, they land on this shore, and I become one of their saviors. Though some of them were surprised to see me at first, but they soon saw that I was there for them and quickly the barriers broke down. Many, as they obtained their belongings and moved on, left hugging me. With some of the refugees I remain in close touch.

There was this one man who needed help due to a wounded leg. When he saw my IsraAID shirt, he told me that three years ago he fought with the rebels in the Golan Heights. During battle he was severely wounded and he came to the border fence with Israel. The IDF took him in and he received treatment at Rambam Medical Center. Now, three years later, as he arrived on the beach on Lesvos, the first person he met was me, an Israeli, who was there to help again. He realized the coincidence.

As a Jewish Israeli, it is easier for me to feel what the asylum seekers are going through. While I was never a refugee, my great grandparents were. As I stood on the shores of Lesvos, taking people off boats, I thought about my great grandparents and this helped me connect with them and understand their plight – probably more than many of the other teams that were there doing this holy work.

As winter commences, the harsh weather and high waves are likely to take more lives. We will see cases of severe hypothermia and drowning on a regular basis. I was told by a former colleague that only the other night two boats started to sink, killing many people, including children. Dozens of asylum seekers are still missing in the waves.

I cannot sit at home knowing this is happening. I am already making arrangements to go back. The refugees need me … they need us.

So often, we talk about tikkun olam. My work in Lesvos was the first time I felt that I was doing tikkun olam.

Feeling inspired to make a difference? Explore the world of global Jewish service! Check out OLAM's Take Action page for opportunities to volunteer in communities worldwide.