Meeting needs from Sudan to the Ciskei

  • Galit Cohen
She dedicated her life to doing humanitarian work in disaster-stricken countries, but now Galit Cohen is applying her skills to helping South Africans ride the COVID-19 storm.
by JORDAN MOSHE | Jul 09, 2020

“Volunteer work gives me the ability to make a difference in someone’s life on the most basic and meaningful level,” Cohen, an expert in disaster management, told the SA Jewish Report this week. “It’s about uplifting people at the very bottom, and it’s so empowering to empower others.”

For the past 18 years, Cohen has jetted across the globe to assist people in need. Originally from Haifa, she has gone from establishing community development projects in South Sudan to administering aid in Haiti in the wake of an earthquake, involving herself in numerous relief efforts and assisting countless individuals. Today, she is the founder and manager of nongovernment organisation Ripples for Change, and resides in East London.

Last Friday, her organisation helped to distribute food parcels to 40 destitute families at Mngqesha Great Place in the Ama Rharhabe Kingdom, a Xhosa sub-group in the former Ciskei section of the Eastern Cape. Assisted by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD), Cohen was able to provide enough food to feed the families for two weeks.

This humanitarian powerhouse has a track record of helping people in need. “My job was to help people recover fast and make a life again in spite of the mess around them,” she says. “I remember when I arrived in Port-au-Prince in Haiti and found a devastated city in which people looked like zombies. There was no food in the shops, looting was rife, and people were living on the streets. I had to help them through it.”

Cohen encountered similar scenes in the Philippines after the region was ravaged by disaster.

“There were piles of debris everywhere, and people couldn’t identify their homes,” she says. “They were searching through rubble piles to find their belongings.

“We arrived to help, and I remember one woman took the jersey off her back to give to me in thanks. She felt she had to give me something. I have kept this jersey until today.”

Cohen arrived in South Africa in 2002 to take up an opportunity to work with Afrika Tikkun. “I was looking for an opportunity overseas, and South Africa was the first to respond,” she says. “I arrived after volunteering in Ethiopia, and Ann Harris [the wife of the late Chief Rabbi Cyril Harris] fetched me from the airport.”

“I knew nothing about South Africa. I wanted to make a difference, but South Africa made a difference to my life. It changed me, and became my home.”

The chasm between the wealthy and the impoverished stunned her, Cohen says. “It was a shock to see the disparity. When I volunteered in Israel, my work was the cherry on the top because the government already does a lot. This was something completely different.”

Cohen reconciled the disparity by imagining that her role was to be a bridge between the two sides. “I saw it as my task to stand between the two, and try to bring different groups together and make a connection,” she says.

Cohen devoted herself to her work, helping to establish community support programmes in Alexandra, Diepsloot, and Orange Farm. In spite of her success, she felt the need to take her work to another level, and decided to return to Israel in 2011 to pursue a Master’s degree in disaster management.

“The humanitarian aid world is divided into development and disaster, or long-term and short-term work,” says Cohen. “I had been involved in long-term work for a while, and decided to try my luck at short-term with the hope of making a long-lasting impact.”

After completing her degree, Cohen returned to South Africa to take up a position in the Eastern Cape as part of the Donald Woods Foundation. Her work led her to travel across the former Transkei, helping with the distribution of antiretroviral drugs and the logistical issues involved.

In 2013, she founded Ripples for Change, an organisation devoted to strengthening rural communities by creating economic opportunity.

“My heart is in the rural areas,” says Cohen. “When I worked in the Transkei, I thought all rural residents wanted to move to the cities to find opportunities, but I found that they would remain there if an opportunity could be had closer to home. I had to bring opportunity to them.”

Cohen’s organisation therefore helps to promote small business, develops agricultural projects, and devises childhood-development plans in an effort to improve the lives of residents in rural areas. When COVID-19 hit, she set out to address the new challenges faced by rural residents, and added the feeding scheme to her organisation’s support system with the help of the SAJBD.

“I’m privileged to use the skills I’ve developed over time to help people cope with the effects of the virus,” says Cohen. “Logistics is what I’m good at. It’s my responsibility to make sure that people can eat. My experience has taught me how to get people to work together, avoid stepping on toes, and co-ordinate efforts. I need to put it to use now.

“The way we’ve handled the virus in South Africa shows what effective leadership can achieve in times of crisis. We’ve learned a lot as people, and the situation is teaching us how to prepare for what may come. This won’t be the last pandemic we face, and we need to learn lessons from it and be ready to apply them in future.”

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