25 November 2013

Syrian children brought to Israel for medical treatment


MICHAEL Harari has been involved in emergency medicine for more than 30 years, but the trauma he has seen in northern Israel in recent months has been the most confronting of his career.

The veteran Melbourne medico, a specialist pediatrician, has been working at the Ziv Medical Centre at Zefat near the Syrian border in an unorthodox humanitarian program that has seen scores of severely injured Syrians brought quietly over the border.

More than 177 Syrians have been treated since February, when the first of the critically wounded were brought in by Israeli army ambulances.

The program at the Ziv Hospital is unusual given the frosty relations between Syria and Israel. But a policy of asking very few questions about who the patients are and how they came to be there has kept politics out of the equation.

As the civil war rages and villages are bombed, patients arrive at a rate of about 15 a week.

Many of the wounded are combatants injured in fighting, but there has been a large group of children suffering the effects of war.

Dr Harari, who trained at Royal Melbourne Children's Hospital and has worked in Britain and Papua New Guinea, says that the more than 20 Syrian children he has treated had "multi-system injuries".

In layman's terms, that means horrific blast injuries, shrapnel wounds, burns and lost limbs caused by explosions, mines and collapsing buildings. "War injuries are the hardest to confront because there is a human hand involved. It's been very hard for me."

Dr Harari, who has Syrian and Egyptian ancestry and speaks Arabic, said the children had all been highly traumatised, one girl taking a month to come out from beneath her blanket.

The hospital has an Arabic-speaking clown on staff who works with doctors to help reduce the children's anxiety while their wounds are tended.

Among the children brought to the hospital was a nine-year-old boy who lost his eye to shrapnel and a teenage girl who lost her leg in stages. As hospital director Oscar Embon says, doctors are "trying to save limbs, not just cut".

In September, the hospital was able to help an eight-year-old Syrian girl with shattered legs walk again after two months of intensive treatment.

The extra workload was thrust on the hospital, which is now looking to raise funds for the treatment of the wounded. In early February, Dr Embon took a call from the Israeli army telling him to prepare for the arrival of a group of severely injured Syrians. "They are just brought here somehow. We get told that 72 are coming, go to the trauma room."

None of the patients are refugees and so far all of them have asked to return to Syria. Mostly they will return to poverty and uncertainty, many showing signs of poor nutrition and anxiety as well as their wounds.

And, because many are worried about the consequences of having been treated in Israel, they are given referral letters in English on plain paper.

Dr Embon said the hospital would continue to treat the Syrians as the civil war continued.

"This is a humanitarian issue. We do not stop to examine whether the injured are civilians or which side of the fighting they support."