Several times a year, often more, Doreen Gold, an Israeli Jew, goes undercover to organize a mission of humanitarian aid for Syrian NGOs. From there the aid is delivered to the increasingly desperate and starving people of Syria, an enemy nation still reeling from a brutal and deadly civil war that may, or may not, be nearly over.
She’s not alone. Some 200 or so Israeli volunteers working for her nonprofit, Il4Syrians, have also been operating in stealth mode since the revolution began in 2011.
It’s a dangerous job for anyone, but for Israelis the consequences of exposure are unthinkable. Doreen, whose name has been changed to hide her identity, has signed a form that says that if she is captured, the government will not negotiate for her release. It’s a form that all of her volunteers – Arab, Jewish, Christian and Druze – must fill in before they leave on a mission.
“It is frightening,” Doreen, a mother of two, tells ISRAEL21c. “It’s always frightening. We know we are on our own.”
Doreen, who is 47, is no stranger to danger zones. Since 1994, she has been giving aid in some of the worst humanitarian disasters of the last couple of decades. The tsunami in Southeast Asia, devastating flooding in Chechnya, the earthquake in Haiti. She’s responded to crises in Iraq, Pakistan, Indonesia, Rwanda and Darfur.
When the revolution began in Syria in March 2011, she knew immediately that she had to help. A month later, Il4Syrians was on the ground. “We were probably the first international NGO operating in the area,” Doreen tells ISRAEL21c. “At that point people didn’t realise how deadly the conflict was. They still called it demonstrations, not a revolution, but we had already figured out that the number of casualties was enormous.”
A conflict that is close to home
Living in the north of Israel, the conflict was close to home. “We could hear the noise of the bombs and explosions from Syria. It was really shocking,” she says.
The first mission brought in sanitation kits, baby powder, food and medical supplies. Since then the organization has stepped up its work, passing along food, medicines, survival kits, medical devices and even – on one mission – 3,000 chemical suits to protect the doctors working with patients who had been victims of chemical attacks.
Aside from these basic supplies, the organization also supports 17 field hospitals and surgery rooms in Syria, all manned by Syrian NGOs. Doreen’s team keeps them stocked with everything they need, ranging from sterilisation equipment to anaesthetics and medicine.
The volunteers train and equip Syrian aides in firefighting and search-and-rescue missions – particularly searching for people under the rubble of bombings. “We discovered that most victims suffer smoke inhalation or burns because bombings trigger explosions in the gas cooking systems. It means there’s a serious need for firefighters there,” says Doreen.
The organisation has also provided four 3D printers to Syria and trained 22 orthopaedic doctors to print out prosthetic limbs.
Convoys go once every one to three months, depending on funding. The Israeli volunteers all speak Arabic fluently, and have cover stories for protection. “Missions are short and pinpointed,” says Doreen.
Bodies buried under rubble
As the years of Syria’s increasingly brutal conflict have worn on and more of the country has been swept into the war, things have changed dramatically. “Everything used to be clear and organised, and due to tight relations with very committed Syrian NGOs, aid could reach almost any point in Syria, but now it’s limited to specific areas,” admits Doreen. “Initially every territory had civilian leaders; now there are only military leaders who aren’t just in charge of fighting, but all the infrastructure of civilian life.
“In the beginning it was a beautiful country, but it has changed,” she continues. “Buildings are gone, clinics have been bombed, and people are missing. You cannot believe the magnitude of the disaster, or the poverty. Everywhere you go there’s a smell of death. There are bodies still trapped under the rubble. There’s nothing you can do.”
But the worst thing, she says, is what’s happening to the people. “At the start they were anxious to create a change; now you just see despair in their eyes. They have lost hope.”
It can be hard for the Israeli volunteers too. Time after time they end up buying the same equipment for the same clinics and hospitals as they are bombed deliberately and repeatedly. Doreen recalls one clinic that they resupplied after a bombing attack, only for the doctor to steal the equipment and take it to Turkey to open a private clinic. “I’m not angry with him,” says Doreen. “It’s caused by the desperation of the situation.
Inevitably this cloak-and-dagger work is tough on her family. Until a few years ago, her mother wasn’t even aware of the work Doreen did. “I told her I was training groups worldwide to deal with mass disasters,” says Doreen.
It was only after hearing her daughter give an anonymous interview on the radio that her mother finally realised what was going on.
“It’s very difficult for my family, my partner and my children,” acknowledges Doreen. “I don’t have any smart ideas of how to make it easier. We have to work where we are needed, and not just where we’re allowed. Being a mother made everything stronger for me because I realise that mothers will do anything to save their children.”
Doreen recalls a moment years ago, when her oldest child was eight and she was preparing to fly to Kashmir after an earthquake. “He asked if this time someone else’s mother could go, not his,” says Doreen. “I told him that I hoped that if he was freezing and starving on a mountain, some other mother would come and help him. After that he used to tell me – ‘If those kids need you more than I do now, you can go, and then come back.’”
In the last few months, as Europe has become increasingly unable to cope with the refugees flooding its shores, Il4Syrians has also begun offering long-term aid to Syrian refugees in Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Bulgaria in an attempt to offset the growing clashes there.
“We receive them the moment they come from the sea. They have nothing. They need blankets, sleeping bags, toothpaste, a hood against the rain. We give them backpacks with warm clothes and basic necessities, and treat their medical problems. If they begin their journey in Europe healthy and strong, and have the information they need to make their way to somewhere safer, it will be easier for everyone,” says Doreen.
Opening the door to dialogue
There are also plans afoot to try something new in Syria – dialogue. While Doreen and her volunteers never admit where they come from for fear not only for their own lives, but also for those of the people they work with, two years ago Doreen came clean to one of the large Syrian NGOs she works with. It was a watershed moment.
“They understood for the first time that their own president, who promised to protect them from Israel, was the one massacring them. While Israeli volunteers were risking their own lives in order to save their women and children,” she said. “Their world was shaken to the core. After a month they came back to the table and made an agreement with us.”
The formal agreement was written on paper topped with the Israeli and the Syrian flags, and for Doreen it was a tremendous achievement.
Now, at the urging of the Syrian NGO, the two organizations are trying to kick-start discussions between civil leaders in the two countries, despite the lack of official diplomatic relations.
Already the initiative is bearing fruit – or in this case, seeds. As a direct result of this discourse, a large donation of tomato, cucumber and pepper seeds was passed via the organization to Syria for the people to plant.
“It took us five years to build this trust, but now we have to use it and start an active dialogue between the people of Syria and Israel,” says Doreen.
So far, Il4Syrians has helped hundreds of thousands of Syrians. Though a ceasefire has now tentatively been signed, the aid work will continue as the country tries to pick itself up, at the same time it continues fighting internal extremist elements like Islamic State.
Does this work ever get too much?
“It’s always been too much, even from the beginning,” admits Doreen. “But being survivors of the Holocaust, I feel we have a moral prerogative to be the voice of voiceless people. I don’t need thanks. Recognition is unimportant. I just do the mission and deliver what we have to deliver.
“I always say to my volunteers before they carry out a mission, ‘I’ll do my best to bring you home safely, but one thing I won’t take responsibility for is the type of person you’ll be when you get back.’ After seeing this disaster you are transformed. You cannot stay the same. The only thing that helps is planning the next mission.”