Wounded Syrians welcomed at Israeli hospital

No one at the Western Galilee Hospital in Nahariya knows the name of the handsome young patient with the large brown eyes and neatly trimmed goatee and mustache in the neurosurgery ward. They don’t know how old he is or where his family is. What they do know is that he was severely wounded by a blast, sustaining internal cranial bleeding and swelling in the fighting in Syria and that he was brought to this northern Israeli hospital last month by the Israeli army in an emergency over the border evacuation.

The young man recently regained consciousness and was told by the nursing staff — many of whom are Arab Israelis and speak Arabic — that he was in Israel. At first he seemed a bit confused hearing both Arabic and Hebrew, and though he is still unable to speak, he follows them with his eyes.

“You can see shock in their eyes when they are told they are in Israel,” said Dr. Masad Barhoum, general director of the hospital and a Catholic Arab Israeli. “But after a couple of days they feel at ease and comfortable.”

Another patient, who for safety reasons will be referred to simply as “A,” has a large beard typical of devout Muslims and a large scar curving around one side of his skull. He shuffles through the hallway with an Israeli soldier following nearby. Though his long-term memory has remained intact after his injury, his short-term memory has been damaged. He will soon be released and sent back to Syria.

Casualties of war

These two patients are among the approximately 90 wounded Syrians — some fighters and some civilians, including two infants and a 14-year-old girl paralyzed by a sniper’s bullet — who have been secretly spirited over the Syrian border and taken in by the 670-bed Nahariya hospital, one of three hospitals in northern Israel that have been treating Syrian wounded since March. Soldiers are placed in front of the rooms of the injured Syrians for their own protection.

As the hospital with the most advanced surgical department and most extensive intensive care trauma unit in the north — and the hospital closest to the border — the Western Galilee Hospital has been receiving complex cases. These include chest injuries, neurological injuries, multi-system wounds, internal organ injuries and gunshot wounds — many which point to execution-style shooting through the head, Barhoum said, who upon his appointment to the position six years ago became the first Arab to head an Israeli hospital.

While Israel has signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, there have not been as yet any peace talks conducted with Syria. In fact, the two countries technically are enemies, between which numerous fierce wars have been fought since the founding of Israel in 1948.

Despite the political climate, Barhoum said that it was natural for him to accept the request from the chief military medical officer of the Israeli northern command to treat wounded Syrians at his hospital with no questions asked.

“We have to do this,” Barhoum said. “It is our professional privilege, and it is also our moral obligation. We see the tragedy that is going on in Syria with more than 120,000 dead and many homeless, suffering from diseases and injuries without the ability of receiving treatment. What we do here is a drop in the ocean. I have the opportunity to do this as a human being. I thank God that we have the opportunity to treat these injured.”

Raised in a practicing Catholic home in the northern city of Haifa, Barhoum said he was taught to help others in any way he could and to live by the paradigm of “Love Thy Enemy,” he said — though he does not see the Syrians as enemies.

“We, as Christians, are taught to help others, but others do that as well, also Jews, everyone,” he said. “I don’t feel (the Syrians) are my enemies. They are helpless and need help. I have the privilege and opportunity to be the director of this hospital when the Syrians need help. My staff feels the same way.”

In the trenches

Antioch patriach
Pope Francis embraces Greek Orthodox Patriach John X of Antioch at the Vatican Sept. 27. CNS photo from Reuters

A public government hospital with a limited budget and little private funding, the hospital serves the 600,000 people of the Upper Galilee with no regard to their race or religion. The hospital staff reflects the makeup of the local area population and consists of Muslims, Druze, Christians and Jews. Most of the Jewish hospital physicians speak enough Arabic to conduct basic medical checks. Many of the injured arrive at the hospital after being left in the field for 24 hours, some with no treatment and others with very rustic and unprofessional treatment, a sign that perhaps their comrades had tried to help during a desperate situation.

Usually unable to speak at first, the patients initially communicate with hand signals. One patient who was suffering from a severe head wound, shattered jaw and internal injuries offered up his open hand when asked how many children he had and slowly lowered one finger, than another, then another, indicating that three of his five children had been killed, coming to the heart-wrenching realization that he did not know where his wife and two remaining children were.

Treating the Syrian patients has brought the reality of the Syrian war much closer to home for the staff at the hospital. No one can remain aloof to the distress of a 3-year-old child who cried for days for her mother until an aunt was able to be brought in through the border to be with her, Barhoum said.

“I have worked here as a nurse for 35 years, through the various wars Israel experienced, and I have never seen terrible wounds like these,” said a male nurse from a neighboring Israeli Arab village, who asked not to be identified.

A Catholic foundation

In a corner of Barhoum’s office stands the Israeli flag and portraits of Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hang on the wall. On the adjacent wall there are two framed photographs taken during Pope Benedict XVI’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 2009.

Barhoum recalled attending Mass every Sunday with his family as a child, though now because of his work he can’t take Sundays off for Mass. In the Jewish State of Israel, Saturday is the day of rest, he said. He does, however, attend holiday services and has his own moments of private contemplation.

“I still believe in God but totally concentrate in my hospital on science and medicine,” he said. In moments of silence, he said, he believes that nothing is coincidental, there is significance to being in a certain place and a certain time.

“Even being here as general director, as an Arab-Christian is not a coincidence,” he said. “Being here when the Syrians are here needing help, that is not a coincidence.”

Ongoing crisis

In the hospital’s surgical ward, four more young men from Syria are either paralyzed or missing limbs. One young man — “D” — said that he knew he was being taken to Israel after he was wounded, but he wasn’t afraid to go because some of those already treated in Israel had returned to Syria and had spoken about the good treatment here.

The situation in Syria is very bad, “D” said, and he worries about the children in his village so traumatized by the shooting that they even hear the noise of war in their sleep. He hopes that in six months the war will be over and he will be able to be treated in Syria. He also would be welcome to return to Western Galilee Hospital, where Barhoum has pledged to keep tending to the casualties.

Despite not understanding fully why God has called him to serve the wounded in this way, Barhoum said his efforts will continue, calling them his “moral duty.”

“I don’t know what God wants from us, but I know what we have to do,” he said. “We continue to do our mitzvoth [Hebrew for “good deeds”]. Maybe, I believe, I will understand (His message) in 10 years. It is too complicated to understand now.” 

Judith Sudilovsky writes from Jerusalem.