SACH hopes Syria girl's Israel surgery inspires more

Balancing a media blitz and concerns for the family's security when they return home, the organization who brought the girl to Israel say they hope she is the first of many.

Iraqi children treated in Israel 370 (photo credit: Meredith Holbrook/SACH)
Iraqi children treated in Israel 370
(photo credit: Meredith Holbrook/SACH)
A Syrian mother waits with her four-year-old daughter outside the pediatric intensive care unit of Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, chatting with the Palestinian mothers who have taken her under their wing during her rather remarkable stay in Israel.
Outside the waiting room, an Arabic-language TV crew waits to try to score an interview with the woman. She politely declines, saying she and her daughter have grown tired of being interviewed.
It’s an unprecedented story – a refugee child from Syria, maybe Israel’s most bitter enemy, brought to Israel two weeks ago for heart surgery. A decision, which doctors said, saved her life.
The girl was brought to Israel by the charity “Save A Child’s Heart,” which has treated over 3,000 children from 45 countries free of charge since its founding in 1996.
As complicated as the surgery was, just bringing the girl and her mother to Israel required a series of hurdles cloaked in secrecy, a process that SACH asked to be kept off the record, before handing over a non-disclosure agreement.
Simon Fisher, executive director of SACH, has been dealing with a media blitz surrounding the girl since she arrived about two weeks ago.
The attention, he says, could potentially jeopardize her and her family’s life as much as the heart condition that brought her to Israel. He described an Israeli-Arabic media outlet that didn’t obscure the girl’s face in their report, adding that her picture is now circulating on Arabic websites in the Gulf States.
“We hope this Syrian child will be the first of many to come, but there was the test of getting her the permission to come into Israel from the two sides [Israel and Jordan],” Fisher said. “Then she had to withstand surgery, which she has done, and then [SACH] and the media has to not screw up the story so that we don’t jeopardize this.”
He later added, “If we do an overkill in the media, she’ll be the first and last child.”
It appears to be a complicated balancing act for the charity – on the one hand they seek out the public relations opportunity such operations bring, especially one as remarkable as bringing a girl from Syria to Israel for lifesaving surgery. But on the other hand, they realize that this same PRgenerating media exposure could potentially jeopardize the girl’s safety back home and her ability to return to Israel to finish her surgery.
Such exposure could also potentially deter future parents of children in need from Arab countries, including parents of Iraqi children, over 200 of whom have been treated in Israel through SACH.
“You have a good story here, but at the end of the day if she can’t go back to where she came from, you’ve saved her life but you’ve torn her apart from her family, which if they’d known that would happen in the first place they probably wouldn’t have agreed to have her come to Israel,” Fisher said.
“We need to get PR to help us to raise funds, but you don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
The young Syrian girl will need to return to Israel for a second surgery a year from now, restarting the entire complicated process of crossing borders.
Fisher admitted that he isn’t sure what the family will tell people in Jordan if they are asked where they have been, but hopes that her story will encourage other children in need to come to Israel for surgery.
Making matters more complicated is the issue of how the surgery will be interpreted in the Middle East, where little is taken at face value.
“I guess at the back of people’s minds is, how is this being manipulated beyond humanitarian aid? Everyone is for humanitarian aid, the problem is when it’s manipulated for propaganda on the Israeli side. The Jordanians on the other side could be seen as cooperating with a program which is ‘promoting Israeli propaganda,’ so how does that make them look?” Fisher is well aware that the Syrian girl is the one bringing the journalists to Wolfson Medical Center, but he says that for SACH, the girl’s story is just part of a much larger picture.
Their operations bring children from all over the world to receive lifesaving surgery and bring foreign doctors from Third World countries to train and return with the know-how they learned in Israel.
The wider picture is quite apparent at Wolfson, where at the pediatric heart department, children from around the world are waiting for echocardiograms, a test that uses sound waves to create a moving picture of the heart.
A teenage Sudanese girl sits next to an Ethiopian boy, a few feet away from a woman from Burundi and her child.
A nurse from Tanzania who speaks Swahili translates for an Israeli doctor speaking to the Burundi mother in English, while on the other end of the room a young Iraqi mother listens to a translator telling her in Kurdish about her child’s surgery, translating her responses back into Hebrew for the doctor, who moments later greets a Romanian girl and her parents.
Nearby, in the pediatric intensive care unit, a week-old Palestinian infant from Hebron lies under a blanket on a tiny hospital bed being treated for a serious heart condition by Jewish and Arab doctors and nurses, while a few meters away another infant from Hebron lies restless on a hospital bed.
Moments later, the doors open and a Tanzanian and an Ethiopian doctor wheel in a young African child who just underwent heart surgery.
Unable to disclose much on the record about how the Syrian girl was brought into Israel, Fisher said that her entry required personal approval from Interior Minister Gideon Sa’ar because she comes from a country that has no relations with Israel.
She was identified in Jordan by SACH sister organization Shevet Achim, which found a group of four children in Jordan in need of lifesaving heart surgery. The girl’s family was the only one who agreed to come to Israel – and that was only after their fears could be soothed.
A member of Shevet Achim, who asked for his name not to be used, saying it could complicate the organization’s operations in certain countries, said the organization goes to places that SACH can’t and works to bring the children to Israel for treatment.
He added that such efforts are often stymied by deeply rooted fears about going to Israel, but more so by fears of what will happen to them when they return home.
“There’s a lot of fear, but if we take this girl to see other families who are in need, it could create some grassroots word-of-mouth, and we could help more children later,” he said.
When asked what the next step is after Syria, he said there are still another few refugee children in Jordan in need and then added, “we heard a report of a child from a Shi’ite neighborhood of south Beirut, but that may be harder.”