Designing for IsraAID
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Designing for IsraAID

Local volunteer hits the  ground running at refugee center in Greece

The center’s staff sits togther under a big red heart.
The center’s staff sits togther under a big red heart.

In January, Batya Klein of Englewood and her friend Debbie Levovitz, both interior designers, went to Greece as IsraAID volunteers. The experience was “life-changing,” Ms. Klein said.

So much so, Ms. Klein joked, that her husband, Ben, and their daughters, 21-year-old Gabby and 19-year-old Sydney, were “extremely jealous” of the unique opportunity she had to improve the lives of refugees from all over the world. “My dad, Morris Shammah, was super-jealous,” she added. “He’s from Aleppo and speaks Arabic and French.”

Ms. Klein and Ms. Levovitz were tasked with redesigning a community center in Soloniki. Unlike many volunteers, “we knew what we were going to do.” Still, they had never done such a project before, nor had IsraAid ever assigned such a job. “We were guinea pigs,” Ms. Klein said.

How did this all come about? “Debbie had met Yotam” — IsraAID’s other co-CEO — “in Washington, D.C., where she lives, and followed the work of the organization for years. But we thought it was only Israeli volunteers. We didn’t realize Americans did it too, and it didn’t occur to us that a designer could help.”

When they learned that they could participate, “Debbie asked Yotam what we could do for them, and he said we have this center we want to fix up. You could try to do something with it. We took the job and ran with it.”

The community center, which refugees flowing into Lesbos, and from there to Saloniki, had been using, “was in terrible shape,” Ms. Klein said. But because they’d talked to the center’s staff before they embarked for Greece, “we had measurements and pictures before we went. IsraAID provided a budget and we also fundraised and got some donors.” In addition, both designers “ended up buying some stuff,” including toys for the children and furniture for the facility.

Given this “amazing” two-week opportunity, the two women not only brought plans and know-how, but they were able to include diverse members of the center in the job. “We had people from Morocco, Algeria, Syria, Iraq, Congo, Sudan, Afghanistan. They all spoke different languages but there were enough ‘language chains’ going to get the job done.

“People signed up by skill. When we got there in the morning, people were already painting walls, or teaching each other how to paint, and some unaccompanied teenage refugees turned out to be artists, painting signs and furniture. Some just wanted to help, so they cleaned.”

Besides getting a totally redesigned community center, members got “the pride of ownership. Yotam was shocked.” Ms. Klein said that both she and Ms. Levovich have done other volunteer jobs before, and she also was a teacher. “All my skills came into play, and we were able to complement each other’s skills,” she said. “We jumped in and were open-minded. We hit the ground running.” While staff at the center was extremely helpful, “we didn’t ask anyone to babysit us.”

What members seemed to love the most was “the art installation project,” Ms. Klein said. “Each person could make a small tile. They loved it — we had to stop them, they were making too many. We put them on a wall. It’s uniquely theirs and people can add to it.”

Reflecting on the experience, Ms. Klein said, “I had never seen humanitarian efforts first hand. People dedicate their lives to do this for other people. They touch people one at a time.” She realized also that the refugees, who may never have met Americans before, might now have a positive view of the country thanks to her presence. “We changed lives in a small way,” she said. “We weren’t overwhelmed by the large nature of this problem; we brought it down to a human scale.”

Did anything surprise her? “Yes, having a blast with someone from Algeria, or the Congo. We really had our humanity in common — a similar sense of humor. I wasn’t sure how I would feel, but there was a common thread. I was totally comfortable.”

Praising IsraAID and the work it does, Ms. Klein said she would encourage others to volunteer. “If you have a skill and have time, go with an open mind. To hear about people who are really suffering, and who risked everything for just a chance, is one thing. To see the people who escaped changed my perspective.”

Their first volunteer stint was so successful that Ms. Klein and Ms. Levovitz already have been assigned two new missions. They will soon be going to Puerto Rico to turn temporary housing back into a community center, and then, in November, they will be off to Guatemala.

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