I have just returned from Israel. My sister has lived there for 40 years so I thought it was time I visited! Like many people I have mixed feelings about this troubled country. So many diverse religions, cultures and races squeezed together in a strip of land bordered by four hostile nations.
With the rise of terrorism ISIS and other terror groups are embedded and growing, easily infiltrating the refugee camps. In fact, while I was there, ISIS - based in Egypt - fired five rockets close to the southern resort of Eilat.The Israeli defence system The Iron Dome intercepted four but one exploded only miles from Israel’s biggest resort. Missiles are frequently fired from the Gaza strip into Israel and Israel fires some back. These attacks are regular and rarely attract world attention.
 
My sister is staunchly proud of what Israel has achieved and of the kibbutz where she went to volunteer all those years ago.She was young, adventurous and really believed this was going to be a good life and a good way to bring up her children. Indeed the kibbutz has 900 members and has carved out of the desert an impressive and thriving community. It is a very different way of life , but like all communities, far from perfect  and would not appeal to most.
 

Volunteering in the Gaza strip

She volunteers for an agency which takes Palestinians from Gaza to hospital in Jerusalem. Gaza is a 52 mile long strip of land with 1.8 million people virtually imprisoned within. Its history is complex and tragic and no one country comes out of the making of this state looking good.
I went with her to the border crossing to take two women suffering from cancer to the oncology department in one of Jerusalem’s biggest state of the art hospitals. There is no provision for oncology in Gaza.The crossing was like a heavily fortified airport building. Outside, about 30 people, mostly women dressed in black, were sitting on plastic chairs waiting to be collected. They looked anxious, ill and resigned.  
It was hectic and very tense. It felt chaotic - enhanced for me by the fact I understood no Hebrew and my sister only has a smattering of Arabic. There were other volunteers waiting, holding up the names of the patients they were collecting. One man was waiting for a little boy he had been taking for chemotherapy for several months; he had waited for two hours already and was still there when we left. He was in tears of frustration  and anger. We will never know if he turned up eventually, was refused permission to cross the border or had died. He had been very ill.
 
After about an hour our ladies appeared, one accompanied by her husband who spoke Hebrew, the other by her daughter. They looked exhausted. It had taken them one hour to get out of Gaza and two to get through border control.
They had started this trip at 5.00 am. We had coffee and biscuits for them which they accepted gratefully. The journey was amazing. With lots of translating and a mixture of three languages we chatted all the way. They asked how many children we had and were amused when we said five between us. One had nine and the other five.
The husband added he wanted more, for another son. They asked so many questions and there was so much laughter you could have imagined they were going on holiday, not for some hospital intervention. We were just four ordinary women from three totally different countries and cultures, I think we became friends in those few hours. When we arrived they hugged us and held our faces in their hands and kissed us. It was as if their holiday had ended. I found myself saying "God bless you", something I have never said to anyone in my life before. We sat in the car watching them being searched again, and we wept. I asked her how she could do this? "Because it helps them and it helps me, I am doing something."
 

Why do we do this?

A friend of my sister volunteers for a women’s refuge and answers a helpline for abused women. There are many Bedouin encampments in the Negev. The conditions are primitive, the children look thin and dishevelled.  Some are minding the meagre flocks of starving sheep and goats.  Packs of dogs and skinny cats forage for food. They are not nice places.

Hanni told me about a young woman who regularly called the helpline. She was well educated but had never worked. She had bravely refused to marry two of the men that had been chosen for her. The brother of one rejected suitor was put out by this. Every weekend he came to her parents' house where he raped and abused her.

Everyone knew and everyone did nothing.
She was a prisoner, she could go nowhere without a man, or even a boy to accompany her. She has no means of escape.
Week after week she heard from this girl who didn’t complain - she just wanted to talk and hear about the outside world. Hanni was naturally distressed and feeling helpless. Talking to her supervisor she asked if she could somehow meet her, do something for her. Her supervisor replied that if she left or ran away, she would be found and killed. She also said, "You are doing something, you are listening."
 

My role at SAFE

I volunteer for Finding Your Voice at SAFE. The women I see have managed to leave an abusive relationship and need help and support.  They have so many battles to fight. There are legal, financial, housing and childcare issues to face.
Nothing is quick or easy and very often there is actual fear to live with, which persists even though they have left the perpetrator. I too often feel helpless. I think my reason for writing this and wanting to share this experience is that I learned two very simple facts, or at least they were reinforced.
Firstly, I am hoping that by helping, I help myself too. I think I am making a difference, albeit a small one. It makes me proud to be part of a fantastic team doing all they can to make a big difference.
Secondly, it is not our job as volunteers to fix things. Sure, we can offer practical guidance, but most importantly we are listening. Really listening. Our clients know that they are being heard. That is so important.
Written by Rosie Hannigan SAFE volunteer.
If you would like to volunteer for SAFE and make a difference to someone's life by listening, then please email Sarah Richards [email protected]
If you would like to make a donation towards our volunteers programme see our donations page.