World

01.31.14

Syria’s Israeli Guardian Angel

Meet the woman heading a stealth team of aid workers helping to ease the terrible suffering of Syria’s refugees.

If there’s an afterlife, Anat (not her real name) has earned herself a ticket to heaven’s VIP section.  She’s saved countless lives, infiltrated a host of Middle Eastern countries and taken impossible risks. The word ‘fear’ doesn’t seem to be in her vocabulary. But tell her you’re a reporter for The Daily Beast and she’ll run like her tail is on fire. When it comes to getting attention, Anat makes Mother Teresa look like Kim Kardashian.

For the past 10 years, the 46-year-old has been living in places most of us only see on the six o’clock news. When a mammoth tsunami hit Southeast Asia in 2005, Anat and her team of volunteers pitched a tent in Sri Lanka, where they proceeded to cook 42,000 meals in 14 days. That same year, when the Georgian government decided it was too dangerous to send assistance to villages near the Chechen border after torrential rains caused severe flooding in the area, Anat not only found a way to get to the distressed, she brought with her 10 tons of food and supplies. Name any disaster or conflict, Anat has been there. Rwanda, Darfur, Pakistan, Iraq, Indonesia, Burma, Haiti, Kashmir, even New Orleans.

These days, however, every minute of Anat’s time and energy is spent on only one crisis: the Syrian conflict.

“It’s hard to put into words just how bad things are over there,” said Anat. “It’s heartbreaking.”

As the war in Syria enters its third year, aid groups are buckling under the mounting need for food and medicine. Four million Syrians have been displaced from their homes, essentially living as refugees within their own country. Another 2 million have fled to Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. The United Nations predicts that number will double by the end of 2014.

Making matters worse, the region has been hit by one of the coldest and wettest winters on record, turning refugee camps into muddy swamps, and leaving many exposed to freezing temperatures.

“They’re in a tough spot,” says Anat. “They can’t work, they have no money. Many of them won’t even register as refugees for fear of retribution by forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. And that means they don’t get the help they so desperately need.” UN protocol notifies any regime not only of the return of any registered refugees, but when and which border crossing they came back through.

Unlike other relief groups, Anat’s organization (which accepts donations here) specifically focuses on those who are overlooked by most international aid organizations. “Our mission is to help the most needy,” said Anat. “Countries who take in refugees do it grudgingly. It’s not exactly for altruistic reasons. They get cash from the international community for each person they absorb. The problem is, many refugees are too afraid to sign up. Those are the people we help.”

Part Florence Nightingale, part Carrie Mathison, her journey from single mom to globe-trotting humanitarian is inspiring to say the least. But add her zip code into the mix, and it becomes a plotline straight out of a Tom Clancy thriller.

Anat and her team are from Israel. They’re essentially helping citizens of one of their country’s sworn enemies, and risking their lives in the process.

“We’re aware of the danger and we accept it,” said Anat. “We try to keep a very low profile.”

Her carefully handpicked team of more than 200 active volunteers is comprised of former Israeli commandos, doctors, social workers, nurses, and Arabic-speaking trauma specialists. Their goal is simple: go in, distribute help, and get out without getting arrested. The missions are top secret. Israeli citizens are not allowed into hostile areas for fear they’ll be captured and tortured. But Anat and her team are willing to take that risk.

“Nobody asks permission to kill, we don’t ask permission to save lives,” she says.

To be safe, volunteers are strongly advised to make wills and have their business in order before going on any mission. “I’ve told my mom not to demand the government negotiate my release should we be captured,” says Anat.

While most non-government organizations, such as the Red Cross or Red Crescent, use the media to secure donations, Anat has to do everything by word of mouth, or personal solicitation. Her work has gone largely unreported. Too much publicity could shut her down and even put people’s lives at risk. (Before doing this interview, Anat requested that The Daily Beast refrain from publishing any information that could compromise her identity.)

The money all comes from private donations, mostly from wealthy Israelis and American Jews who, like Anat, believe there is another, more peaceful way, even in the Middle East.

Even so, her story has quietly made the rounds among the humanitarian A-list circle. The Dalai Lama, former President Bill Clinton, and Israeli president Shimon Peres are among her fans.

And for good reason. So far, Anat has delivered more than 1200 tons of food, supplies, and medicine to Syrian refugees and internally displaced people, an impressive feat for a stealth organization.

Anat won’t say how she manages to get to the people she helps, but suffice to say she’s gotten pretty good at it. Once, she brazenly told a border patrol agent to go ahead and shoot if he wanted to stop her. Then, she put her foot to the pedal a la Thelma and Louise, and drove right through the checkpoint, leaving the guard stunned and a bit dusty.

“I’ve never met anyone like her,” says “Yusuf,” a former undercover commando in the Israeli Defense Forces and one of Anat’s volunteers. “I have lot of respect for what she’s doing.”  Yusuf, who also asked us to change his name, is an Israeli Bedouin. Like Anat, he believes that politics should be left to politicians. “Ever since I left the military I’ve been looking for something exciting and meaningful. It doesn’t get much better than this,” he said.

Asked if she’s ever been tempted to tell anyone who she really is, Anat says yes. Once. After handing out packages in a refugee camp, someone in the crowd asked her if she was Italian. For some reason she decided to tell the truth. The reaction, she said, was mixed. An elderly woman gave her a hug and told her, “It doesn’t matter, God bless you and anyone willing to help.” But more than a few people walked away in protest.

“I don’t take it personally,” she said. “All their lives, they’ve been taught that Israel is the devil. Finding out there are Israelis willing to risk their lives to help them goes against everything they’ve come to believe about us. It’s a lot to take in.”

Not that there hasn’t been any criticism back home. Some in Israel are worried the lives she’s saving today could be enemies of the country tomorrow. Others have suggested she spend her money and efforts on the poor back home. Anat disagrees.

“There are more than 40,000 Israeli NGOs whose job it is to help the poor in Israel,” she said. “We’re the only big NGO that helps others. I think there’s plenty room for both.”