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Finding a Place To Begin – Personal Account from a First Responder in Morocco
By Yisrael Bitton
It all began on a Shabbat morning at around 11 a.m. when I received a phone call from the leadership of United Hatzalah of Israel, asking if I could participate in an emergency relief mission to Morocco. I hadn’t been following the news as I am a Shabbat observant Jew. I am a volunteer EMT with the organization and therefore I do keep a phone on in case a medical emergency occurs in my area, then I receive an alert on my phone. Alerts, I’m used to, phone calls I’m not. The organization doesn’t call its volunteers on Shabbat unless it is a life-threatening matter. When the call came in and I saw it was from headquarters, I knew it had to be an urgent matter so I answered without hesitation.
They informed me about the dire situation in Morocco as a result of the earthquake which had taken place on Friday night. I was given a brief overview of the scale of the disaster, and the urgent need for our assistance. Without a second thought, I accepted the task of joining this mission to serve as one of the members of the advanced assessment team. I have a skillset, including knowing how to operate special search and rescue equipment such as infrared and thermal drones that were used successfully in Turkey to locate a number of people buried in the rubble. The thought was that these skills may be needed again here. Thus, even though I had other plans for the week, I put everything on hold. As a first responder I know very well that when lives are at stake, my own personal plans take a back seat.
As the Sabbath ended, our journey began. We made our way to the airport. After a stopover in Milan, we touched down in Marrakech at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday. Time was a critical factor so we didn’t even check in to our hotel, we dumped our non-essential items, took some medical packs and other equipment that we would need for the day, and headed out. As we ventured into the rural areas of the Atlas Mountains, the extent of the devastation became evident. The scenes were heart-wrenching – injured individuals, destitute families, and of course corpses. For many, the earthquake had stripped away whatever little they had in life, leaving them with absolutely nothing.
Everywhere around us was desert with villages scattered among the mountaintops and valleys. In many cases, these villages suffered tremendously as entire neighborhoods were wiped away or collapsed on themselves.
In order to get a proper assessment of the situation, we spoke to community leaders as well as individuals to see what they needed most. Some told us that they needed shelter from the hot sun and cold nights, others said that they needed water, and many needed medication or acute medical attention. We helped where we could, and made notes of the rest. Our mission was to help but to also assess whether or not another larger, and more well-equipped team would be needed and what they would be needed for. We were to relay that back to Israel so that preparations could be made for a secondary team to come and provide more assistance for the people who survived, but who now need to rebuild their lives, and their health.
Our team united in purpose, ventured into the affected regions, sometimes in places where no rescue teams had yet set foot in order to understand the challenges faced by the local communities. We documented the scope of medical needs, identified urgently needed supplies, and evaluated the overall humanitarian situation.
There was one particular moment that touched me deeply, it occurred later on Sunday in the village of Tizi Ouaddou in the Atlas Mountains. The locals did not speak Arabic, but rather a Berber dialect, which made it challenging to communicate. One family’s modest house had been destroyed. The family was an elderly couple who needed assistance to create this temporary shelter until more help could arrive and something more permanent could be done for them. We lent them a helping hand, collaborating with them to construct a makeshift shelter where they could spend the night. It was a small gesture from our side but made a big difference to them. At the time it was what we could do to help, and it provided some comfort for those who had lost everything. It was a place to begin.
If I managed to help only this family then it would have been worth it. But there were many others, hundreds of others, all of whom needed help as well, so we made our farewells and resumed our mission.
By the end of the day, we were much more knowledgeable of what our mission would later become, helping the people who have lost everything find a place to begin rebuilding their lives. This would be a mission that demands every effort we have and more. It is far too large for us to take on fixing the problems now facing the people of the Tizi Ouaddou or any of the other villages that were hit hard by the earthquake. Fixing things isn’t our mission, our mission is to help them find a beginning and empower them to begin.
As a second, larger team, is now making preparations to come and take over the mission, they will be able to make the proper plans and obtain the proper equipment and aid in order to help the people here by giving them a small boost at this difficult time. I pray that the work I and my team began here will make a difference and play a small part in healing injuries, and easing the pain and overwhelming sensation of loss that is currently taking place in Morocco. Morocco will be strong once again, I see it in the eyes of the people here. They are resilient. I hope that our mission helps speed that eventuality to come about a little bit faster.
Yisrael Bitton is a volunteer EMT from Givataim who was part of the four-person ‘jump team’ for United Hatzalah of Israel to Morocco after the earthquake that took place on Friday. He runs his own aluminum business and has a passion for mountains and the outdoors. Yisrael speaks Hebrew, English, and basic Moroccan, and serves, among other capacities as the team’s translator when needed.