The Last Syrians in Israel: With Border Closed, Wounded Syrians Face Uncertain Future

Israel has treated thousands of injured Syrians over the past five years, but only a handful remain in Israeli hospitals. Haaretz meets one of the final four – 14-year-old Ahmad, who nearly lost a leg in the civil war

Ahmad’s mother holding Islamic prayer beads on the bed where she sleeps next to her son in Ziv Medical Center, Safed, July 2018.
by Kyle S Mackie

Ahmad plays with the screws on the metal cage around his leg while his mother talks with the social worker. Someone will adjust it soon. They’ll check on the bolts that penetrate what used to be a healthy right thigh, in what is now the final Syrian body part being treated in Safed, northern Israel.

Ahmad, 14, is the last Syrian patient at Ziv Medical Center, a leading trauma center located some 30 kilometers (19 miles) from the Syrian border. About 1,200 severely wounded Syrians have been treated here as part of Operation Good Neighbor, but since the Israeli initiative to treat wounded Syrians ended last week, there won’t be any more like him.

Nearly 5,000 Syrians have been treated at Israeli hospitals since 2013, including 1,300 children, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Operation Good Neighbor was officially launched in June 2016, to provide additional humanitarian and medical aid to Syrian civilians. Several medical care facilities were established in the Israel-Syria border region, including the Mazor Ladach (“Bandaging Those in Need”) field hospital, where a further 7,000 patients were treated.

“If the program has to be stopped, in some ways I’ll be pleased – because I hope it will be reflected in less fighting and fewer wounded,” said Dr. Michael Harari, a senior pediatrician at Ziv who is in charge of coordinating Ahmad’s care. On the other hand, “If you have to imagine what’s happening in the war, it’s more frightening than if you actually see people who come from it and speak to them,” he added.

Harari said he used to have to anesthetize Ahmad in his bed just so medical staff could change the dressings on his leg, which was almost entirely detached from his body by a Syrian army airstrike this spring.

Ahmad, 14, is the last Syrian patient being treated at Ziv Medical Center in Safed.
by Kyle S Mackie

Now, four and a half months into what Harari described as the “arduous, painful process” of an innovative limb salvage treatment, Ahmad is starting to walk again.

Unfortunately, the hospital staff can’t tell him where he’ll be walking to when he finishes the treatment in about another month.

The IDF announced the closure of its border clinic earlier this month, after the Assad regime retook the southern part of Syria. In a September 13 statement, the Israeli army did not address what will happen to the Syrians like Ahmad who are still receiving medical care inside Israel. The IDF spokesman declined to comment on the issue for this story. However, a spokesperson for Ziv Medical Center confirmed that the hospital has been in the dark about the future of its Syrian patients since the end of July.

Israel’s policy since spontaneously taking in seven wounded Syrians one night in 2013 has been to fix patients up as best it can and then return them to the border. The IDF decided which injured Syrians were allowed into the country, and then essentially served as a taxi service, ferrying the wounded from the border to four hospitals in northern Israel. Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, and the Baruch Padeh Medical Center in Poriya also treated Syrian patients.

Spokespeople for Rambam and Poriya confirmed Sunday that there are no more Syrian patients left at their hospitals. Three Syrians remain at Galilee Medical Center, including an 8-year-old boy, according to Sharon Mann, liaison for the hospital’s department of foreign affairs.

When speaking to Ahmad at the end of July, Haaretz was conducting one of the last media interviews with the handful of Syrian patients still inside Israeli hospitals. The conversation with the young Syrian and his mother, who asked not to be named in order to protect the family’s identity, was translated by Fares Issa, a social worker from a Christian-Arab community in the Galilee.

‘They’re going to kill us’

“I went out from my home to the market, behind my home, then I just heard a bomb. And I looked and saw that my leg was on the floor,” recounts Ahmad about events on the day he was wounded. “Somebody picked me up and took me to the small clinic in the village. They started taking care of me, and they told me that I had to wait until 9 o’clock in the evening – because they wanted to get a decision from the Israeli army that they can take care of me in Israeli hospitals,” he added.

Ahmad said he wasn’t afraid to come to Israel because he knew other people from his hometown who had been treated in the country and had said good things about the hospitals.

Children’s toys in the room that has been used as a school for Ziv Medical Center’s young Syrian patients.
by Kyle S Mackie

“It was the only thing for me [to do] to come to Israel and save his life,” his mother explained. “Thank God they accepted my child here in the hospital and saved his life and his leg.”

She’s more worried, though, about what could happen when – and if – they’re able to return to Syria.

“I’m afraid that when the government comes to my village and somebody tells them that I treated my son in Israel, it will be a problem for me,” she said, holding Islamic prayer beads in her lap. “If the army comes to my village, they’re going to kill us.”

Caring for Syrian patients has been an extraordinary burden on Ziv’s medical staff. For the past five years, it has meant extra hours of work, especially for nurses, pioneering new techniques to treat physical and psychological war trauma, and sometimes internalizing that trauma through daily exposure to horrific injuries.

But that doesn’t mean the doctors at Ziv are keen to see the Syrians go.

Harari, Ahmad’s pediatrician, is himself of Syrian descent and says that being part of a slight opening of the Israeli-Syrian border has resonated with him personally.

“There’s been something very uplifting about the whole process – partly because you’re dealing with life and death,” Harari said. “It actually makes the whole complexion of the Middle East seem different to those of us who deal with the Syrians.”

“These are bleeding people, suffering people. If you can, you must help them,” said Prof. Alexander Lerner, M.D., of his Syrian patients at Ziv, where he heads the orthopedics department. He has operated on Ahmad several times.

Ziv Medical Center in Safed, northern Israel. One of four Israeli hospitals to have treated nearly 5,000 injured Syrians since 2013.
by Kyle S Mackie

Lerner said that Israel’s medical aid to the Syrians could also play a role in the two nations’ futures. “It’s absolutely similar color of blood, of muscle, of bone,” he said.

Ahmad and his mother will remain at Ziv for now, sleeping side-by-side on hospital beds. But they hope to be able to return to Syria soon, if only because that’s where their family is.

“If somebody would take all of my family [out of Syria], I don’t have any problem to go anywhere in the world,” says Ahmad’s mom, adding that they never had the money to flee, despite seven years of living without one “moment of trust, of peace, of quiet.”

Ahmad, meanwhile, is just ready “to go back home to my family, to my brothers, to my father, and to walk again. This is most important – to walk. Inshallah.”