SYDNEY – Michael Harari hopes to be tending goats on a farm near Rosh Pina this weekend, shortly after landing home from the long-haul flight from Australia. But when the 58-year-old pediatrician returns from paternity leave to his job at the Ziv Medical Center in Safed, he will also be tending to children who are casualties of war. Except these are not Israeli or even Palestinian. They’re Syrian, casualties of the civil war that has claimed more than 100,000 lives in the last three years.
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In 2011, Dr. Harari moved to northern Israel in search of a quieter life, and some goats. Two years later – on February 16, 2013 – he and other staff at Ziv got an emergency call. “We were told we had to come into the hospital because we were receiving Syrians, and from that night onwards there was a steady trickle,” he says.
Since then about 280 patients have come to Safed; some 50 of them were children, says Dr. Harari, who anesthetizes the children for painful procedures in the emergency ward. “They are all severely injured by blast injuries, high-energy explosives or buildings falling on them. I’m told out of 450 [who have been treated in Israel] four have died.”
While he has been a children’s intensive care doctor for decades, he’d never seen war injuries.
“The hardest bit hasn’t been the injuries,” he told Haaretz. “It’s been that human beings do this to one another deliberately and systematically. This is the first time I’ve seen almost on an industrial scale human beings doing this to one another; that’s been the appalling part of it.”
As the stream of casualties continued to arrive at the hospital, he and other staff realized that splitting kids up from their parents was “a disaster” insofar as the psychological wellbeing of the child is concerned. “Now we keep them together irrespective of how severely injured the parent is,” said Dr. Harari, who specializes in kids with incontinence.
But he said the mechanics of how the casualties come into Israel remains a mystery. “There’s a cloud of vagueness or secrecy perhaps about how they get to us and what happens to them when they leave us.”
He credits Australia’s ambassador to Israel, Dave Sharma, as the first person to realize the extraordinary work Ziv is doing for Syrians. “He was really the first person to point out how unusual and extraordinary this was.
“People who are our sworn enemies and taught to make the Mediterranean red with our blood occupy 50 percent of the intensive care beds,” Dr. Harari said.
Most of the victims he saw “would have died or been permanently incapacitated” if they had stayed in Syria, Sharma wrote in an article in The Australian newspaper after a visit last year. The Jewish, Arab and Druze staff “do not stop to ask the patient’s nationality or religion, he wrote. “They simply do their utmost to save life and treat injury.”
A graduate of Melbourne’s Mount Scopus College, Harari’s grandparents hail from Syria and Egypt. His first visit to Israel in 1974 was “infection at first sight” and in the 1980s he made aliyah, serving in the Golan during the first Lebanon war before working at Hadassah Hospital.
A Hebrew and Arabic speaker, Dr. Harari returned in 1996 to see his family and take up a job offer that was “too good to refuse” – senior pediatrician at the Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne.
But Israel kept calling him home. “When I came back this time I was determined to work in a small hospital. I was determined to work somewhere where I could do something useful.”
He chose the north because he wanted “somewhere quiet where I could live a rural life.”
“The north has a third Arab, Druze and Jews, and it’s reflected in the patient mix of the hospital – it’s a very egalitarian place, an oasis almost in the craziness of the Middle East.”
Although he’ll return to the pediatric ward at Ziv in a few months, for now he’s focused on his newborn baby.
And his beloved goats. “One day I hope to have two or three of my own,” he laughs.