“I am the dominoes champion.”

22 July, 2019

Gabrielle Sudilovsky

Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow Gabrielle Sudilovsky on intercultural connection in Puerto Rico. Going door to door is hard. Going door to door in El Real, where damage from Hurricane María is still prevalent, is even harder. Going door to door when your first language is not widely spoken in the area is harder still. Although knocking on doors in El Real was a trek, the sore feet, sunburned arms, and mental exhaustion were worth it to build the connections and camaraderie with the community that we did.

IsraAID Puerto Rico is pioneering a new series of social nights in El Real to increase its exposure to the community and introduce new disaster risk reduction strategies. Naturally, the best way to get the word out is by distributing flyers advertising the event. When I first realized I would be stopping at 210 homes in the El Real community, I was less than thrilled. At 90 degrees Fahrenheit, with densely humid air, prickly grass up to our shins, sneaky mosquitos, and a beating sun, the conditions were less than ideal. Our only link to the outside world was the satellite phone given to us by our team.

As I progressed through the community, however, my outlook quickly shifted. First there was an old man with a smile that lit up the entire “Los Vega” sector of the barrio. Before we even explained who we were, this man invited us into his vibrant yellow house, gestured us to his couch, and treated us like old friends. I quickly recognized a sense of community that I had not experienced anywhere else.

Next was a woman in a baby-pink house with a perfectly kept lawn full of soft purple flowers and broad green leaves. As we chatted about the upcoming IsraAID event, we alternated between English and Spanish. After I explained the event in Spanish, the woman told me about her daughter in English. It was a special moment, each of us working to accommodate the other. Our communication was less than perfect, but her warmth and message of welcome were loud and clear.
Our stops at the homes were punctuated by visits from the neighborhood dogs. From small fluffy pups to a large Great Dane, the canines seemed to reflect the unique community.

Finally, there was a man who underwent a stark change in emotions as we spoke. At first, I couldn’t tell if he wanted to talk to us or not. I waved hello as Maya exclaimed, “Hola, buenos días!” The man looked at us, contemplated, and told us to come through the gate. We obliged, and I pitched him the event.

“Hola, my llamo Gabrielle y mi amiga es Maya. Somos de IsraAID. Esta jueves, hay un evento se llama noche de juegos. El evento estará en la oficina del comité del agua. Va a tener juegos, picadera y música. Todos están invitados.”

As I expanded on the juegos, or games, I saw something shift in the man’s eyes. When I mentioned dominoes, I knew I’d touched on something personal. Instantly, the man replied, “soy el campeón de dominos” — “I am the dominoes champion.” As we chatted about dominoes and other games, the man and I began telling jokes and laughing. Our conversation roamed to his family, how I had learned Spanish, and what my first few weeks in Puerto Rico had been like. My 15 second spiel to a timid old man turned into a 10-minute, light-hearted conversation between friends. I was beginning to genuinely feel a part of the community. My confidence in my Spanish and my ability to connect with the locals suddenly seemed to swell.

Becoming a part of the community was special enough, but what brought the impact of our work home was seeing the awesome turnout at the game night. This narrative is demonstrative of a larger pattern within IsraAID’s work post-Hurricane Maria. IsraAID’s ability to connect exceptionally well with the community enables it to enact positive change over the long term — not just the short. For IsraAID’s disaster risk reduction programs to take root, they have to be believed in at a grassroots level. Greeting locals door-to-door with a smile on our face is the first link in a long chain helping to ensure that next time a disaster strikes, the community will be that much more prepared. For the IsraAID Puerto Rico team, trust and understanding are always the first step in any project, helping to ensure a sustainable strategy and success.

Yes, I got a couple of bug bites on my legs. Yes, my arms were a few shades redder than they had been in the morning. And yes, my legs were ready to give out after walking through the entire barrio. Were these uncomfortable conditions worth it? Absolutely. By the end of the day, I had made connections with the community that will continue to grow throughout the rest of my time here. I couldn’t have asked for more on my trek through El Real.

— Gabrielle Sudilovsky, Summer 2019 IsraAID Humanitarian Fellow in Puerto Rico
In September 2017, Hurricane Maria devastated the Caribbean islands. The hurricane caused multiple fatalities and destroyed much of Puerto Rico’s key infrastructure: electrical, water, agricultural, and buildings and homes. IsraAID’s team in Puerto Rico has constructed a gravity water filtration system for the community of Barrio Real, trained local educators on how to provide Psychological First Aid to students, and worked to build disaster-resilient communities. Gabrielle is currently attending Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey. She is one of two IsraAID Humanitarian Fellows volunteering in Puerto Rico for summer 2019.

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