Baby Yehia has enormous chocolate-brown eyes. His family, Afghani refugees living in Pakistan, nicknamed their huggable little boy “Yaya.”
They almost lost Yaya because he was born with multiple severe heart defects that doctors in India and Pakistan could not repair – or at least not for a price the family could afford.
Yaya is now a 16-month-old walking miracle. Pediatric cardiologists from Israel’s Save a Child’s Heart nonprofit organization, based at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, performed a complex eight-hour operation, paid for by donors, on July 31.
Yaya and his father are staying in SACH housing as he heals, and they should be able to return home in two or three weeks to meet Yaya’s newest sibling, born just before the surgery.
Since 1995, SACH doctors have repaired the hearts of more than 4,000 children from 51 countries, at no charge. About half these children are Palestinian Arabs from the West Bank and Gaza. Others, like Yaya, live in countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, including Iraq and Syria. No children from Afghanistan had been treated by SACH previously.
Arranging to bring sick kids from hostile countries is complicated. In Yaya’s case, the process involved determined, goodhearted people in several parts of the world.
Cutting through fears and red tape
The wheels were set in motion last April, when an English-speaking relative of the family in Afghanistan reached out to his Facebook friend Anna Mussman of Haifa.
Mussman is a retired US State Department employee who worked in Afghanistan administering educational and cultural programs. In the 1970s she lived in Haifa, where she returned after her retirement, and taught high school English. One of her students was Simon Fisher, now executive director of SACH.
“I realize helping a child from a country with which Israel has no diplomatic relations is not easy, but perhaps possible,” she emailed Fisher.
Fisher asked Mussman to get hold of a medical report for the SACH team to review. The Israeli doctors felt that despite the risk, Yaya could indeed benefit from surgery.
“I got back to Anna and informed her that we were willing to accept him,” Fisher tells ISRAEL21c. “But the father was very concerned because hospitals in Pakistan and India had said it was an extremely high-risk surgery. He was petrified for the life of his son and also of coming to Israel.”
Mussman appealed to Fary Moini, a member of the La Jolla Golden Triangle Rotary Club in California. Formerly a cardiac nurse in Iran, Moini is involved in relief projects in Afghanistan including, most recently, the training of doctors to use Israeli device MobileODT to screen women for cervical cancer.
“Anna called me and said she needed me to convince the parents to send the child to Israel,” says Moini, who is not Jewish. “I found some friends to talk to the parents and that’s how the communication between me and Anna and a doctor in Afghanistan started.”
The family agreed, and returned to Afghanistan to take care of paperwork, medical tests and myriad other bureaucratic details on their side, with assistance of the Turkish Embassy in Kabul. SACH, a non-governmental organization, arranged the rest with help from the Israeli government.
“It took a joint effort among our Foreign Ministry, Interior Ministry and Ministry of Defense because of obvious security issues involved in bringing a child from a country that doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Israel,” says Fisher.
Coming together to do good
Another roadblock came up: Yaya’s mother was pregnant and therefore couldn’t accompany her son. The father was willing, but needed a woman to help him with childcare. However, due to Afghan restrictions on unmarried males and females traveling together, nobody could be found.
“So I told Anna to put my name down. I was ready to go to Kabul and pick up the child and bring him to Israel,” Moini tells ISRAEL21c from Holon, where she continues caring for Yaya. Ironically, Moini had never changed a diaper before, but she learned fast.
After a long and complicated journey from San Diego, she arrived in Istanbul just ahead of Yaya and his dad – the morning after the military coup – and together they continued to Israel, where Mussman greeted them.
“I met them at the airport because I was very nervous about their arrival,” she tells ISRAEL21c. “We didn’t know if they would get out.”
Fisher found a Pashto-speaking Israeli – through a former army buddy of his — to communicate with Yaya’s father. The cousin in Afghanistan located an Israeli who speaks Urdu, and the two men volunteered to come to the hospital and translate.
“This is a story about people from all over the place, and from different walks of life, who came together to do good,” Fisher says. “The father found that the people here were supportive and warm, and you can see he is much more relaxed now.”
The SACH staff continuously trains cardiology teams from other countries and from Palestinian Authority territories — more than 100 people who are now saving children in their own countries. One such trainee, Ethiopian surgeon Yayehyirad Mekonnen, made the first incision in Yaya’s little chest.
The surgery was a success. “He’s doing fantastic,” says Moini. “He’s running around and eating. I’m constantly trying to put weight on him so we can send him home soon.”
She discovered that she and Yaya share a birthday, April 28.
“I’m just in love with this child; he’s so vibrant and smiley. God bless Save a Child’s Heart — if they didn’t accept Yaya, he would have died. This medical team at Wolfson is incredible, everyone from the chief surgeon, Dr. [Lior] Sasson, to the staff and volunteers.”
SACH is supported by agencies, charities and individuals in Israel and across the world, including the European Union’s Partnership for Peace Program, USAID, and the German foundation Ein Herz fur Kinder.
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