I’m schmoozing in a hospital room with four ebullient Syrian women. Our conversation is limited by my rudimentary Arabic and secrecy restrictions of the IDF, which has brought these women and their four daughters to Jerusalem. No names can be revealed, no faces displayed.
No probing questions about the situation.
Thirty-six hours in Jerusalem have changed their lives.
Each of the daughters came to Jerusalem with a hole in her heart. Literally.
Like most Israelis and too few foreigners, I’ve heard about the IDF’s Operation Good Neighbor. Four years ago a lone wounded Syrian approached the IDF soldiers guarding the border for help.
An IDF commander agreed. Sporadic requests that followed turned into an organized outreach program. Since 2016, through Operation Good Neighbor, the IDF has been providing heating fuel, flour, shoes, baby formula and diapers to the Syrians. Most impressively, our army has provided medical care.
A nurse who served in the IDF field hospitals in Haiti and the Philippines said the wounds treated in our border field hospital are more horrifying than those natural disasters. He told me about a patient whose abdomen had been hastily stitched, how the medical team had to make sure a bomb hadn’t been planted inside the wound before treating it.
In addition to the war casualties, the IDF began providing access to Israel’s sophisticated lifesaving medical care. More than 4,000 Syrians have been treated for serious health problems.
The moms and daughters I’m sitting with are the first Syrian patients to come to Jerusalem for treatment. I’m documenting their story in a short film, obscuring their names and faces. In addition, I’ve taken on a kind of grandmotherly role. I bring coffee, stuffed animals and paracetamol for a mom’s toothache.
I learn that they’re from villages or refugee tent camps near the border. Since the civil war erupted in Syria in 2011 after the protests called Arab Spring, an estimated five million Syrians have fled their homeland. But these women and their families have remained. About 200,000 Syrians are clustered near the border on the volcanic plateau that abuts our Golan Heights, near the towns of Quneitra, Suwayda and Deraa.
The moms have seized the opportunity to have their daughters’ congenital heart defects fixed. There’s a 14-month-old, two two-year-olds and a 10-year-old. Syrian doctors heard the heart murmurs but could offer no solutions.
The moms crossed the border the first time to bring their daughters to a pediatric heart clinic in Tiberias at the Baruch Padeh Medical Center of Poriya Medical Center, which has been playing a central role in Operation Good Neighbor. Hadassah cardiologist Julius Golender joined them. To undertake the heart repairs, Poriya is partnering with Hadassah Medical Organization.
The Peres Center for Peace and Innovation is covering the discounted hospital costs.
These first four cases invited to Jerusalem are the easiest. These patients don’t need open-heart surgery, as others who come after them will. Still, if left longer untreated, the gaps between heart chambers will produce excess flow to the lungs, cause irreversible lung damage, dilate their hearts and shorten their lives.
I was with them before the procedure, blinking back my own, as moms burst into tears when the doors to the cardiac catheterization lab shut. After the hearts were patched with umbrella- shaped implants, moms and daughters slept through the night in the pediatric department. I shared their joy when, the next morning, the echocardiograms showed four hearts working better than they ever had before. The implants will remain forever.
The moms update their husbands with the good news via WhatsApp text messages, and ask about their other children. (I can’t help remembering that this free communications app was developed by a Jew from Kiev, who left in 1992 with his mother and grandmother after the iron gates of the Soviet Union were pried open.) Soon they’ll return home. One woman, 21, has mentioned that she lives in a tent with her husband and two children, that her parents were killed in a bombing. Another, 27, lives in a farming village with her husband and four kids. They grow cucumbers and tomatoes.
Soft-spoken Dr. Golender pulls up a chair for a final briefing.
He’ll check the girls again next month in Tiberias. Among his instructions, he advises them not to give the girls long baths. The moms burst into laughter. One of the women apologizes and explains: We’re lucky if we get a cup of water from the taps.
They have one additional request. I need the translator. Hand cream. Not the kind the nurses dispense for chapped skin.
They’d like something fragrant to bring home.
Fortunately, there’s a mall attached to the hospital.
Escorted by Arabic-speaking IDF soldiers in uniform, they board the minibus and leave as they came, in the dark.
I GO to visit another patient. An IDF soldier, he was patrolling the border with Gaza on February 17. That’s three months before the American Embassy opened in Jerusalem. A Palestinian flag was stuck in the security fence. Flags, kites, toy quadcopter drones are the supposed innocent emblems of supposed peace marchers. He removed the flag remotely, but the part still on the fence blew up.
There’s a brave mom here, too. I wait with her as the nurse changes the bandages. She’s been by her son’s side through his five surgeries. The family was at home eating Shabbat lunch and celebrating the birthday of a relative from their native France when IDF soldiers knocked on their door. Their son was being rolled into surgery in Beersheba when they arrived.
The handsome soldier grits his teeth against the pain to give me his usual toothy smile. I blink back more tears. He’s impatient to heal, he says. He wants to get back to the IDF and complete his service to his country.
Is there another country like ours? The writer is the Israel director of public relations at Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. Her latest book is
A Daughter of Many Mothers.