After serving eight years in an elite Israeli army unit, Gili Cohen, like most discharged IDF soldiers, decided to go on a post-army trip abroad three years ago. Exploring Thailand’s Ko Samui Island, Cohen, spent the Jewish New Year at a Chabad House, along with 1,300 other Israelis. It was there that Cohen came to a realization.
“I was amazed to see the number of Israeli backpackers travelling to these poor areas in countries like Thailand and India,” Cohen told Tazpit Press Service (TPS) in an interview. “I realized that instead of just travelling around these regions, we could also do something to help out locals with so many human resources available.”
Subsequently, Cohen and two other IDF officers founded Fighters for Life in 2013, an organization that gives Israeli backpackers the opportunity to volunteer and make a positive impact on the countries they visit for a period of two weeks. The humanitarian delegations of post-army travelers repair orphanages, renovate children’s shelters, provide medical care and engage in numerous educational activities for youth. In addition, the organization has its volunteers do a stint of volunteering in Israel before travelling abroad.
Thus far, Fighters for Life has assisted nearly 1,000 children around the world and works in coordination with the Israeli Foreign Ministry and local aid organizations on the ground, carrying out humanitarian mission work on three different continents – South America, Africa, and Asia.
“We carefully select the volunteers that go on these missions,” explained Cohen. Some of the skills that the organization looks for in soldiers are those who have experience as paramedics, in speaking foreign languages, and who have some background in building and construction.
When Gur David finished his IDF service, he stumbled upon Fighters for Life on Facebook and became one of the first soldiers to participate in the organization’s first humanitarian aid delegation to India. “When I planned my trip to India, I had wanted to do some good for people during my travels. Fighters for Life gave me that opportunity,” he said.
David, who served in the IDF Golani Brigade and later in the Home Front Command’s Search and Rescue Unit, describes his trip to Mumbai, India as an eye-opening experience.
“The situation was very difficult there and totally different from anything I’d ever seen. You can see kids and wild boars picking through the mountains of garbage in the slums,” he told TPS.
David spent his first two weeks of his trip in India volunteering with impoverished youth. He and the other volunteers from Fighters for Life taught the kids lessons in math, English, dance, art, Krav Maga, first aid, and in hygiene. After he completed the volunteering mission with Fighters for Life, he continued travelling India for eight months.
“Volunteering on a local level makes you see the culture in a very different way; you feel less like a tourist,” said David, who today manages Fighters for Life’s volunteer activities in India. “Seeing people who have so much less than you, but yet are happy gives you a completely different perspective on life.”
The Israeli volunteers aren’t the only ones to experience a change in perception. David points out that during his mission to India, a mother of a child he worked with told him that she had been taught to believe that Israel was the “great devil” but that by meeting the Israeli volunteers, she now views Israel as an “angel.” “Locals get a different idea of Israel when they meet us,” David commented.
Gili Cohen, who was awarded the Moskowitz Prize for his work this past June, further noted that the international community is usually presented with a seemingly negative narrative of Israeli soldiers. “When we go on these missions, the news media in Ethiopia, Argentina and India come to report on our work. Through our volunteer initiatives, we are able to show the world what being an IDF soldier is really all about.”