What to do when your town is on fire? by Nadezha, Israel

My story is based on the events of November 2016, when a wave of fires (both wildfires and urban fires) began in Israel from the south as the Dead Sea area to Nahariya. The largest fire occurred in Haifa, where 527 apartments were destroyed completely 77 buildings, leaving 1,600 people homeless. 75,000 residents, about a quarter of the city’s population, were evacuated from 11 neighborhoods.

I work as assistant to the kindergarten teacher. Usually, it is the kind of job new immigrants can do in the country to improve their Hebrew faster. My story is about how you can turn from helpless observer into an active citizen.

It was an ordinary morning in the kindergarten. Children were rehearsing for upcoming Hannukah. If you could only see cute kids with little hands clasped in prayer as they sung Jewish remake of Leonard Cohen’s famous “Hallelujah”. In just an hour the peaceful singing had to be interrupted as emergency evacuation started because of the fire in the city. As soon as the last child was handed to the parent, all the workers were free to go home.

As I got out of the kindergarten, I saw a lot of police cars and people. The main road from my workplace in Denia to the town center was closed for vehicles. I walked with the crowd towards the Horev center, where I live. After 20 minutes of walking I felt strong burning smell and saw smoke coming from the direction of my neighborhood. Eventually my home area was cut by police and all the locals were evacuated earlier. I stood in the middle of the street and tried to understand what to do. Nobody seemed to care for anybody, it was quite chaotic and people continued to rush out of the area. As I stood there waiting to see how things would unfold, I thought: “why the police or some locals would not come and explain me what is happening, can’t they see I am a foreigner and I do not know what is going on, how to act?!” I was standing there without any warm clothes and water to drink, and the smoke was way too strong to stay outside.

In the middle of all this chaos, I saw an old lady, who was sitting alone at the bus stop. She was wearing home shoes and held in her hand a plastic bag with medicine in it. She looked lost and confused. I just thought how cold and confusing this situation for a lady of her age would be. I went to the bus stop and took a seat next to her. Soon we started to talk in mixed Hebrew and English. Hannah, my new friend, was happy to have my company as we sat there waiting for the police to allow us to enter the houses. Hannah told me about her life in Poland before coming to Israel. I sat closer and hugged Hannah to make us warmer. After a while volunteers from the municipality arrived.

Finally organized coordination of evacuated people started. Volunteers made sure elderly people got help first. Hannah was offered a ride to a waiting place until the area would be safe to return. I was asked to accompany her. We spent the next two hours in a warm car with water, having uplifting conversations with other elderly people.

From being a lost and lonely foreigner, I suddenly became an active helper and comforter of those who were more confused and lost than I was. I was no longer a victim of the situation. I chose to act and the whole situation changed. I felt like part of the country, which was living through a critical moment. At this very moment I realized that I finally got a real connection to this new place, the place  that I call now my home because of my husband’s Jewish heritage.

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