Syrians brave risks to seek treatment in Israel

NAHARIYA, Israel (AP) — It looks like a standard scene in the corner of the children’s intensive care unit at a hospital in this northern Israeli town. The counter is jammed with stuffed animals, and balloons shaped like princesses float against the ceiling. A nervous, silent father hovers over his injured daughter.

But he and the girl are Syrians, spirited across the border by the Israeli military for medical treatment unavailable amid the civil war at home. He is silent because he cannot speak Hebrew, nervous because his presence in Israel, Syria’s long-time enemy, could place his family in danger if his trip is discovered.

He came to the hospital six days ago, following after his daughter. He refuses to say how he arrived, and hospital staff step in quickly to deflect questions about the journey. He has no contact with his family at home. All of this, he says, is worth it.

“For my daughter, I’m willing to do anything,” said the father, who, like his 12-year-old daughter, could not be named because he fears repercussions in Syria. While he was grateful for high-quality medical care, he was visibly afraid of the potential consequences of his trip, speaking in one-word answers and keeping his eyes lowered. He checked footage filmed by an AP Television News crew to make sure his daughter’s face was obscured.

On both sides of the Syrian civil war, militant groups like Hezbollah and fighters linked to al-Qaida are virulently opposed to Israel’s existence.

The Syrian regime itself is a longtime Israeli enemy, and its citizens are banned from travel there, facing possible jail time if they are discovered. The two countries have fought two wars, and Israel has annexed the Golan Heights, a plateau it captured from Syria in 1967. President Bashar Assad and his late father Hafez, the former Syrian ruler, have used their anti-Israeli stance as a source of legitimacy and have hosted and funded anti-Israeli militants. Generations of Syrians have grown up under propaganda vilifying the Jewish state.

All of this means that the father’s presence in Israel could mean trouble for his family back home from any number of groups.

Those fears, said Dr. Zonis Zeev, the head of the children’s ICU at Western Galilee Medical Center in the city of Nahiriya, are often the hardest for the patients to overcome.

“Probably at some time they were told about the ‘animals’ on the other side of the border, us, like the Zionists or the Jews,” he said. “So they are terrified, and we have to treat the anxiety not less than treating the physical part. Sometimes it is much harder.”

The father refused to identify even the general area in Syria where he lives, but members of the staff at the hospital believe that most of their Syrian patients live near the frontier with the Israeli-controlled Golan. When fighting picks up near that frontier, they said, they see spikes in the number of Syrians who come to the hospital.

“We get a call from the army and they say, ‘someone’s coming in an hour,’” said Haggai Einav, the hospital spokesman.

The hospital has treated 44 Syrian patients since March 27, four of them children as young as three years old. The 12-year-old daughter is one of seven Syrians currently scattered throughout different wards of the hospital, most guarded by Israeli soldiers stationed outside their rooms. The Ziv Medical Center in the city of Safed, along with Army field hospitals, have also taken in Syrian patients.

Dr. Masad Barhoum, the director-general of the hospital, said those numbers were a “drop in the ocean” given the scale of violence in Syria. The United Nations announced last month that their estimated death toll in the Syrian civil war had topped 100,000 people. Still, he said, his doctors are proud to offer whatever help they can.

In the case of the 12-year-old girl, her father had taken her to an aunt’s house, thinking she would be safer there than at home. Instead, standing in the doorway of the sitting room 16 days ago, the girl was struck by flying shrapnel. The metal damaged her kidneys and spleen and wounded her back, said Zeev, the ICU chief.

The daughter underwent surgery in a hospital in Syria. It was there, the father said, that he heard secondhand whispers that treatment was available in Israel. “I heard from people that they treat people well here,” he said.

After five days in the Syrian hospital, the girl said, a relative of her aunt took her to the border. She does not know how she crossed or reached the hospital, but she arrived confused and lonely.

The hospital used Arabic-speaking teachers and social workers to talk to the girl, and the aunt of another patient, Zeev said, became like a surrogate mother to the rest of the ward. The staff provided comforts like a red stuffed elephant and portable DVD player. Her spirits were lifted five days later when her father showed up.

“Once the father arrived, the child was a different child,” Zeev remembered.

The girl faces more operations, and the hospital staff is still unsure when she will be able to go home. Their youngest patient, a 3-year-old girl, had stayed at the hospital for 50 days before being discharged earlier this week.

Yet for all of the uncertainty, culture shock and danger of being found out, both father and daughter are anxious to return to Syria. The daughter said she constantly thought of her twin sister. The father, who has three more daughters at home, had a short answer when asked if he planned to go back: “Of course.”

“We do all our best at the end to have a smile on the face of the child and what happened later, nobody knows,” said Barhoum, the director-general of the hospital. “But you can ask … every injured Syrian here, the first thing that he will say, I heard from him: ‘I want to go back home to Syria.’”

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Associated Press producer Areej Hazboun contributed to this report.

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Follow Max J. Rosenthal on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AbuZilif .

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