November 4, 2009, Updated September 14, 2012

A team of Israeli speech and hearing specialists is restoring the hearing of adults and kids in predominantly Muslim Azerbaijan, far from the ears of the media.


Outside the audible range of the international media’s “ears” positive stories are brewing between the Jewish State of Israel and nearby Muslim countries. It’s time to turn up the volume. The latest project takes place in Azerbaijan, where a team of Israeli specialists has been restoring the hearing of Azerbaijani adults and children.

At the end of August, Anat Kochva and four speech and hearing specialists from the Hedim Institute that she founded in Israel, headed to the capital city of Baku in Azerbaijan, a country that shares a border with Iran to the south, and Armenia to the west.

They were allotted a few hospital rooms, and using whatever equipment they had managed to carry with them, in a short period the Israelis saw about 150 Azerbaijanis, many of whom had been told that they might never hear again. The Israeli team fitted 70 people with hearing aids and pledged to return to Baku with more equipment.

For the longer-term, Kochva tells ISRAEL21c, she hopes to see a commitment on the part of the Azerbaijan government to create training programs so that local qualified professionals will be able to diagnose and treat their peoples’ hearing problems: “… since it appears that they have no plans for training programs [on how to identify hearing problems] in small babies and children, we will come and help them to plan an educational training system,” she promises.

But Kochva doesn’t want just to provide handouts. She’s hoping for a willing partner she can trust. “If you change programs [in the government] you must put some efforts into local training and education,” she stresses.

Hearing their cries

In and around Baku, “We saw a very low level of knowledge of treating problems in our field and we could only bless what we have in Israel compared to what they have in Azerbaijan,” Kochva recounts. This applies to both services and treatment facilities for children, and the overall approach to hearing problems, she adds.

When a problem is identified at a young age, “They isolate children in closed schools and they don’t try to mix them with the hearing population. And the level of services there, like hearing rehabilitation and diagnostics at an early age, providing hearing aids and all that is involved, including rehab, is so low. In the 35 years I’ve been working in this field, I have never seen such low levels [of care],” she laments.

Among those treated by her team was 16-year-old Ahmadli Nijad, deaf since birth. Nijad was born with severe hearing problems that worsened as he grew older. Local doctors told his family that he would never hear, but the Israeli group proved Nijad’s doctors wrong by fitting him with a hearing aid device that works.

The idea of helping Azerbaijanis to hear was first proposed by Nati Marcus and the government of Israel. Marcus is an Israeli businessman who for several years has been helping people to see in developing countries by providing free eye operations through his non-government, non-profit organization an “Eye From Zion.”

Muslims who are happy to be helped by Jews

The fact that Islam is the dominant faith in Azerbaijan (the country is about 95 percent Muslim), doesn’t seem to weigh heavily on those coming to the Jewish Israelis for help, says Kochva. “Everybody was very positive [about the visit] because they wanted the help from us,” she says, noting that a number of the patients they treated spoke about their relationships with Jews.

This was especially true of those who came from Kuba, a city once known as the ‘Jerusalem of Kavkaz’ that still has a Jewish population numbering a few thousand. Today, most of its Jews have immigrated to Israel, but they still maintain contact with their families, Kochva discovered: “I heard about people having good relationships with the Jews. They showed us how they loved the Jewish community and we got the feeling that there were no separate rules between the Muslims and the Jews.”

The journey to Azerbaijan was a joint mission that included representatives from Magan David Adom, Israel’s version of the Red Cross. Two Israelis from that organization came along to teach the Azerbaijani version of the organization, the Red Crescent.

It was not the emergency team’s first meeting with the Azerbaijanis and it took place following President Shimon Peres’ recent visit to this secular country that has expressed an interest in improving its relations with Israel. Working together on an emergency medical center in a Muslim community is one of the new projects in the pipeline.

An ear to the ground

Thanks to the help of a number of Jewish organizations active in Azerbaijan, the Israeli embassy and a local Muslim-run fund, the hard-of-hearing Azerbaijanis were made aware of the visit of the Israeli team.

Sadly, not everyone could be treated in the first round, since the crew came equipped with only 70 devices, but they have promised to return. “When we were finished there we promised to come back to bring another 30,” says Kochva, who is looking forward to an ongoing relationship with the country, despite the significant out of pocket costs that she incurred.

According to media reports, equipment worth NIS 200,000 (about $50,000) was brought to Azerbaijan. And that doesn’t include the cost of flights and staffing the trip.

Born in Poland, Kochva trained as both an audiologist and speech therapist. Her institute, Hedim, the largest chain of hearing and speech rehabilitation clinics in Israel has been operating since 1989, offering professional services to people with hearing and speech difficulties all across the country.

Kochva works with products bought from the small Canadian company Unitron, based in Kitchener, Ontario. Through Israel’s Foreign Ministry she invited a representative of the Canadian company to join the Israeli delegation on their mission.

Meanwhile, Kochva has her ear to the ground as she awaits further developments. In a country that is influenced by Islamic fundamentalism from nearby Iran, her small project could have a huge impact on global democracy: “We are in contact and the Israeli Embassy is working on it,” says Kochva. “We hope to continue. We don’t just want to come and go, but to see what we can build there so it can be better.”


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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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