“We are FILO, First In and Last Out”

A conversation with Yotam Polizer, Co-CEO of IsraAID, an Israel-based humanitarian organization that brings critical support to anyone who needs it We call it “FILO,” meaning First In and Last Out. We arrive very early after disasters, usually within the first 72 hours to provide immediate relief. After the initial response, our role shifts towards training […]

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A conversation with Yotam Polizer, Co-CEO of IsraAID, an Israel-based humanitarian organization that brings critical support to anyone who needs it

We call it “FILO,” meaning First In and Last Out. We arrive very early after disasters, usually within the first 72 hours to provide immediate relief. After the initial response, our role shifts towards training and capacity building of local communities, so eventually they will have the tools and skills to support themselves.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Yotam Polizer, Co-Chief Executive Officer, IsraAID, an Israel-based global non-governmental humanitarian organization. Since its inception, IsraAID has worked to deliver swift, life-saving aid to those struggling with humanitarian crises, followed by long-term support to ensure that vulnerable populations impacted by those crises receive the necessary and enduring help they need to recover. IsraAID is a non-profit organization that has delivered critical help in 47 countries around the world, all with the goal of transcending politics to bring critical support to anyone who needs it.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?

I was born in 1983 in Mitzpe Harashim, a small town in Israel’s northern Galilee region. I am one of four children from a loving and supportive family, and I’m a grandson of Holocaust survivors. My parents, Gavriel and Ronit Polizer, who was a social worker and a school counselor, also volunteered with Ethiopian Jews and Arab citizens of Israel. You could say that I had the belief in harnessing the power of community for helping those in need ingrained in me at a very young age.

My family environment and seeing my parents’ love for volunteer work inspired me from a very young age. My parents worked to help people in Israel overcome serious cultural, identity, socio-economic and linguistic challenges. They made such a difference in the world with their work, and I’m proud to be carrying on their mission with my work at IsraAID.

I began my social activism in earnest while working with juvenile delinquents in a rehabilitation center near Netanya, a city in Israel, mainly working with disadvantaged young people from Ethiopia, an experience that made me realize how passionate I am about public service and also using humanitarian work to build bridges with other cultures. I’ve also done similar work to help underprivileged Bedouin villages in Israel’s Negev desert region.

I joined IsraAID following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, serving as country director there for three years and focusing on trauma care for people who lost their loved ones, a project that played an important role in helping the Japanese people overcome this terrible tragedy. After Japan, I moved to the other side of the world, to Sierra Leone, where I led IsraAID’s support project for Ebola victims. Then I found myself in Nepal, in April 2015, responding to the earthquake that rocked the Himalayas. I led a search-and-rescue team who saved, among other people, Krishna Kumari, who was the last survivor of the Nepal earthquake and who was trapped under the rubbled for six days without food or water.

Then, in the summer of 2015, I helped establish our programs to support Syrian refugees in Greece and Germany.

Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?

  1. The Syrian and Yazidi refugee crisis is probably the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. We have teams of Jewish and Arab professionals providing medical, educational and emotional support for thousands of refugees, all of it delivered by those who speak their native languages. Our main initiative is the school of peace, which is a school for 200 children in Lesbos, Greece, where the teachers are refugees from Syria, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. This project is an incredible opportunity to not only save lives but also build bridges between people who have long been told they are enemies but, in reality, are humans who care for each other.
  2. Another has been our response to recent natural disasters in the US, especially the hurricane in Puerto Rico, where our team is still on the ground providing people with trauma care and access to clean water.
  3. South Sudan is another. We have a team that trained the first generation of social workers in the country and provides support for thousands of victims of rape and gender based violence.

So how exactly does your organization help people?

We call it “FILO,” meaning First In and Last Out. We arrive very early after disasters, usually within the first 72 hours to provide immediate relief. After the initial response, our role shifts towards training and capacity building of local communities, so eventually they will have the tools and skills to support themselves.

Can you tell me a story about a person that you helped?

Back in 2015, in Lesbos, Greece, about 5,000 to 7,000 refugees arrived by dingey every day. One day a boat capsized just before it reached the shore, spilling people into the water. I pulled a four-year-old Syrian girl out of the water. She was shivering and shaking in my hands, suffering from severe hypothermia. I handed her over to our medical team, which treated her. She survived. At the same time her father was shocked. It was clearly the first time he saw a Jewish or an Israeli person in his life. This was the first time I realized what an opportunity we have to not only save lives but to also build bridges through humanitarian work.

This obviously is not easy work. What drives you?

I want to find creative and effective ways to help bring relief, and indeed peace and happiness, to an increasingly turbulent world, and I want to help build trust and perseverance with those badly affected by disasters.

I’m driven by a personal vision, one that can transform trauma and grief through empowerment and resilience. That’s why IsraAID focuses on art, theater and dance — in addition to critical humanitarian support — for those who have experienced natural or man-made disasters. My particular focus in healing those who suffer from broken spirits, because true recovery cannot be accomplished without healing the mind, body and spirit. Indeed, the effects of trauma following tragedy are often harder to see and harder to address than the physical ones. In order to do this work, the most important characteristics are sensitivity, compassion, linguistic abilities and cross-cultural understanding.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. We need more long-term and significant investment in humanitarian crises — not just when the media are there in the immediate aftermath. (A good example is the Clinton Global Initiative for post-hurricane disaster response, which IsraAID is a part of.)
  2. We need to make sure funders and governments invest in both grassroots and community-based organizations, as opposed to just investing in the big disaster relief actors such as the United Nations.
  3. Mental health is an area that’s really neglected in humanitarian support and which needs to be recognized and better funded by aid organizations and their supporters.
  4. Politicians should recognize the opportunity to build bridges and heal geo-political, religious and ethnic divides through humanitarian support. A good example is how much the Israelis and Syrians peoples have connected as a result of the devastating Syrian civil war.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

My youngest brother, Ofer, was born when I was seven. Within the next few years, it became clear that he had a severe case of cerebral palsy. Ofer cannot walk and cannot communicate well. I’m so inspired by his struggles to overcome these challenges. Indeed, in spite of it all, Ofer was the happiest person I knew, someone who never gave up in the face of significant obstacles. I credit Ofer for exposing me to the value and importance of community engagement and social work.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Taking care of one’s health and sanity while working to deliver humanitarian and other aid to vulnerable people is critical. You don’t want to get burned out in the process of helping others.
  2. Understanding languages and local cultures are key things for delivering humanitarian aid.
  3. Local community partners are also critical. They are the most important element of every one of our humanitarian missions. This was especially pronounced during our response to the ebola crisis Sierra Leone.
  4. Disasters are an opportunity to innovate. You’re forced to be creative, to survive and to think out of the box in these taxing situations.
  5. The first month after the disaster is what I call “the aid festival.” The media arrives in droves, as do tons of donations, supplies, aid organizations and other supporters. But a month after, 95% of the supporters leave and the media is moving to the next big story thing. But this, to my mind, is when the real work starts and when IsraAID can stand out above the rest.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see just see this. 🙂

Bill Gates. I admire his leadership as an entrepreneur and innovative philanthropist. As a non-American and global humanitarian, I learned so much about social activism by studying Gates’s transition from running one of the most successful companies in the world, Microsoft, to channelling his energies into so many initiatives to improve the lives of literally billions of people around the world. And I’ve long felt that he carried with him an air of selflessness and altruism that has transcended cultures and borders and brings us together as humans.

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?



Instagram: @israaid

This was extremely inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us, Yotam!

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