Thirteen-year-old Zeinah was walking to the supermarket with her brothers in her village in Syria when she heard a loud explosion. “I lost consciousness,” she says, remembering the blast propelling her high into the air. “When I woke up... after a few hours I realised I was in Israel.”
Israel and Syria have been enemy states for decades. But from the beginning of this year, Israel has been providing medical treatment to a growing number of Syrians, including children. Over 100 injured people, including children, have been transferred to Israeli hospitals for treatment since February 2013. The transportation back and forth is done in complete secrecy – when the patients arrive not even the doctors know much about them, sometimes not even their name or age.
Zeinah is lying alongside two other young Syrian girls and an Ethiopian boy in Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya, northern Israel.
Nearby, her three-year-old neighbour has only just stopped crying and calling for her mother. She was injured by a blast from a shell, an explosion that doctors say trapped and killed many members of her immediate family. The girl suffered burns to such an extent that doctors at Israel’s makeshift field hospital on the Israeli-Syrian border were frightened that she was still burning from the inside and that her windpipe may close up. She is now recovering in Nahariya. Today, much to the delight of the doctors and nurses, she spoke for the first time, asking for some bread to go with her soup.
Nearby, a 12-year-old is suffering from critical injuries after exploding shrapnel pierced her back, hitting her spinal vertebrae and puncturing her kidney and intestine. She was operated upon in Syria but transferred to Israel “probably because they don’t have a back surgeon available over there”, says Dr Zonis Zeev, the head of Paediatric Intensive Care Unit, who is treating the girls.
In war-torn Syria, hospitals have deteriorated and are no longer able to provide advanced emergency treatments. A 36-year-old woman attending a Syrian hospital staffed by Médecins Sans Frontières, a French NGO providing medical services, notes the difficult access to medical treatment. “The problem is, there is no normal life. From a medical perspective, there are no medicines, nowhere to go, no hospitals,” she tells doctors there. “Medicine has become a rare commodity.”
In March, the organisation accused both sides in Syria’s civil war of intentionally targeting medical facilities over the past two years, causing the country’s healthcare system to “collapse”. According to Syrian government figures, 57 per cent of the country’s hospitals have been damaged and 36 per cent are unable to function. In July, the UN announced that number of Syrians killed in the civil war has exceeded 100,000.
In Israel, the Syrian girls have experienced anxiety at finding themselves suddenly alone in a foreign country – and Israel at that. “In Syria, Israel is portrayed as an enemy,” says another Syrian youth in a nearby ward.
Dr Zeev agrees: “For the Syrians, we are monsters. On this side of the border, there are monster- Jews. You probably saw some of the propaganda – of Jews cutting pieces of Arabs and eating them, all the blood and stuff. So they grew up on this feeling and their anxiety is even greater, especially if they arrive alone. It’s really heartbreaking to see.”
“Everyone is worried about me and is helping,” Zeinah says. “But I miss my parents and siblings, friends and my country. These doctors saved my life; if I was not cared for, I would not be alive right now.”
The transfer and treatment of Syrians in Israel carries serious risks for all involved. The Syrian patients’ names, photographs and home towns cannot be revealed at the risk of attacks on them or their families. Meanwhile, in June, Ziv hospital in Tzfat had to be evacuated after a live grenade was found in the pocket of one of the unconscious patients brought in for treatment from Syria.
Nahariya hospital administration at first hesitated in announcing that they are treating Syrians. “In terms of Israel and Syria, we don’t have any formal relations, so it would have been of concern to say we’re treating Syrians”, Sara Paperin, the international affairs officer at the hospital, says. “There was also concern for the patients, particularly from our population here, which is very diverse. Who knows what someone’s motives are in coming and visiting a patient from Syria?”
The war has triggered a high level of emotion throughout Israel and particularly in the north amongst non-Jewish Israelis, where many families have close relatives across the border. The hospital is quick to dismiss any political labels. “When you start to receive children to your medical facility, you understand very clearly these are not rebels or Assad supporters – these are children, casualties of the violence and they need to be treated with the most advanced care that you can provide,” Ms Paperin says.
But there have been signs the Israeli medical treatments were being well received and even relied upon back in Syria. In June, one patient arrived with a handwritten note in Arabic from a Syrian doctor asking his Israeli counterparts to save the patient’s life, outlining the previous medical care the injured man had received and thanking the doctors for the help.
“Most of the Syrians here, we don’t meet them for very long”, says the hospital’s director-general, Masad Barhoum. “They are incubated, they are unconscious, there’s not much human contact. Once they are OK, they leave. But there is one girl who has been recovering here for a longer while – she is laughing, she is talking with staff, she even knows a few words in Hebrew. She is smiling. I believe the staff and everyone, we are already connected with her. That is so encouraging for us.
“But the situation in Syria is a human tragedy. Why is no one doing anything to help those people?”
*The names of people in this article have been changed