A veteran of international relief work for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Amos Avgar has a set routine when he leaves for points overseas. He gets a visa, makes his hotel reservations, checks that his inoculations are up to date, does some research and puts a "Lonely Planet" travel guide in his suitcase.
And, if the country where he is headed may pose some dangers, he kisses the front-door mezuzah on his apartment in southern Jerusalem.
Two weeks ago Avgar kissed his mezuzah.
Two days after a massive cyclone hit Myanmar (formerly Burma) in southeast Asia on May 2 and 3, Avgar was on a plane there, via Bangkok. For a week he visited the devastated area on the Bay of Bengal and met with representatives of the Myanmar government and foreign non-governmental organizations, arranging the Joint’s short-term and long-term role in the relief effort. “We need intimate knowledge of what happened.”
In the days after the cyclone, which killed at least 40,000 people and left another 2.5 million destitute, the immediate threat to citizens and NGO workers was diseases in the low-lying Irrawaddy delta that became a quagmire of refugee camps surrounded by fetid waters.
Which is a familiar setting for Avgar, a sabra who has worked for the Joint 27 years and has done similar relief activities in such places as Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Turkey. He goes in the wake of earthquakes, tsunamis, cyclones and other natural disasters.
“This is my responsibility,” says Avgar, executive director of the JDC’s nonsectarian International Development Program (IDP), who was in New York last week to report on his Myanmar mission at the organization’s Manhattan headquarters.
“Since its inception, JDC has offered aid to non-Jews in crisis overseas,” the Joint’s Web site (www.jdc.org) states. “Working in partnership with international aid agencies, local governmental and non-governmental organizations and local Jewish communities, JDC-IDP provides immediate assistance to address victims’ emergency needs and then conducts longer-term rehabilitation efforts.”
The Joint’s nonsectarian programs are funded by emergency mailbox campaigns and specially earmarked donations, not using funds raised in annual Jewish federation and United Jewish Communities campaigns.
A mailbox set up for victims of the Myanmar cyclone has a $1 million goal, Avgar says.
Hiring an English-speaking driver with a car, Avgar headed from the capital Yangon (formerly Rangoon) to the delta area a few hours west. Driving on unpaved dirt roads, they took a “less-traveled route.”
Journalists in Myanmar since the cyclone have reported that the military junta blocked foreign aid and foreign workers; Avgar says he encountered no roadblocks en route, and was able to take pictures and talk unhindered with homeless Myanmar residents.
“I identified myself as an Israeli,” he says. Israelis are welcome in Burma. “It’s easier to be an Israeli in Burma than an American.”
Before leaving, he loaded his car with water bottles.
In the delta he saw wood-and-bamboo homes with their roofs blown off, and he saw homes already being rebuilt. He talked to people who had lost their homes, parents whose children had been carried away by the torrents. “There was no panic,” Avgar says. “They asked for help. They did not come to beg. They told me their stories.
“It was very hard emotionally,” he says. “You saw the need of the people. The need is vast. You saw the limited amount you could help.
“What I had with me was water. They were very thankful.”
Back in the capital, Avgar left some money for repairs on the city’s synagogue, which sustained water damage in the cyclone, and he coordinated the Joint’s ongoing participation in the relief effort — he hired two local medical students to work with PACT, a microfinance organization, and with World Concern, a Seattle-based NGO; he worked with the Israeli embassy for the shipment of emergency medical supplies; he had discussions with partner NGOs, including The Israel Forum for International Humanitarian Aid (IsraAID), Fast Israel Rescue and Search Teams (F.I.R.S.T.), the Myanmar Compassion Project and the Karym Baptist Convention.
Avgar worked “at least 18” hours a day. “We had meetings nonstop.” He left with his health still intact. “I thank God for giving me the energy to do that.”
After New York City, Avgar returns to Jerusalem. Where he has a set routine. “I kiss the mezuzah when I come back.”