IsraAID CEO: Ukraine crisis is the worst I’ve ever seen

After 14 years of responding to global disasters, Yotam Polizer says the refugee situation in Ukraine is a disaster of “almost biblical proportions” and likely to go on for years.

By Abigail Klein Leichman, ISRAEL21c

IsraAID CEO Yotam Polizer is not a novice when it comes to mass disasters. The Israel-based humanitarian aid organization has responded to emergencies in 56 countries since 2001.

So you can believe Polizer when he says the Ukraine refugee crisis is the worst he has ever seen.

“I’ve been in this field for 14 years, including some of the biggest humanitarian crises of the last 20 years – the tsunami in Japan, the Ebola outbreak, the Syrian refugee crisis – but what we’re dealing with right now is really a historical disaster of almost biblical proportions,” he told IsraAID supporters in a video meeting on March 3.

IsraAID has responded to recent refugee waves caused by unrest in Syria, Afghanistan, Venezuela and East Africa, Polizer noted.

“But the scale of the current crisis in Ukraine is really overwhelming, even for us,” he said.

“There were more than one million refugees in less than a week. In the next two weeks, the estimate is that we’ll have about nine million refugees entering the neighboring countries. The situation in the Ukraine in terms of safety, security and humanitarian needs is just beyond words.”

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Naama Gorodischer, IsraAID’s global head of programs, also has led many emergency missions around the world over the last decade. She is overseeing IsraAID’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, which centers on refugees entering Moldova.

“Only two days after the war started, on February 26, our team was deployed to Moldova to explore the situation and understand how we can best offer support,” she said.

“We came first and foremost to respond to the immediate needs, making sure the population is safe and has access to basic needs for their physical and psychosocial wellbeing. We are focused on public health, especially for the women and children, ensuring that these vulnerable populations don’t become more vulnerable,” Gorodischer said.

She explained that most of the refugees are women and children because most of the elderly are staying in Ukraine for now, while men aged 18 to 60 are required to stay and fight.

Therefore, one of the first things IsraAID did was to set up a Mother & Baby Space in a tent at the Palanca crossing, providing diapers and baby food, children’s activities, blankets and seating. The tent also is staffed by volunteers from the local organization Keystone Moldova.

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We work closely with the [Moldovan] authorities, local NGOs and the local community in planning for the long run,” said Gorodischer.

“We understand this is not a situation that will end anytime soon. Even if the war will end, the status of this [refugee] population will not go back to what it was. It is not clear who will choose to go back and where they will settle. So we are working with these local partners building capacity to continue meeting their needs for the longer term.”

A minimum of five years

Polizer said IsraAID is projecting a minimum five-year operation helping Ukrainian refugees.

“We have to think about this crisis not just for the next week, not just for the next month,” he said.

“Last December we concluded our Syrian refugee program in Greece that lasted six years. We unfortunately believe this crisis will be at least as bad, if not worse, in terms of humanitarian needs.”

Polizer said that when the media’s attention moves on from any world disaster, people think the situation is okay but that’s not how it works.

“Even if we think about the best-case scenario in the Ukraine crisis, that the war will –with the help of God and everyone — be finished sooner than later, still the trauma and long-term recovery of these millions of refugees will take years,” he said.

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“And that’s what we are here to do. We’re here to provide long-term support to help these people build resilience, rebuild their lives, rebuild their families and rebuild their future.”