Afghan baby gets life-saving treatment in Israel — through social media path
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Afghan baby gets life-saving treatment in Israel — through social media path

Two-year-old Yacub’s family was put in touch with an Israeli charity with the help of a Jalalabad teacher and his Facebook connections

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Yacub, a two-year-old Afghan, on February 23, 2017, holds the hand of the Israeli heart surgeon who saved his life. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)
Yacub, a two-year-old Afghan, on February 23, 2017, holds the hand of the Israeli heart surgeon who saved his life. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

From the moment Yacub was born, he lived at death’s door. His father, a wheat and rice farmer from Baghlan Province in northern Afghanistan, who was unable to afford the surgery he needed, left his son’s fate in God’s hands. He never imagined that, through a near miraculous path paved by a few Facebook friends, his child’s life would ultimately be saved by the hand of an Israeli surgeon.

For the first three months, no doctor could diagnose the problem. Yacub hardly ate, he didn’t grow, and he cried constantly. His father eventually found a German clinic in Kabul where doctors said the baby would need heart surgery in India: Yacub was suffering from Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF), a congenital heart disease that prevents blood from getting to the lungs and oxidizing.

But the father didn’t have the money for the journey to India or for the surgery.

When the Afghan baby, now two years old, arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport on February 14, his skin was a pale blue. He was “half-dead,” according to Dr. Hagi Dekel, the Israeli cardiac surgeon who operated on him hours later at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

Dr Hagi Dekel, an Israeli cardiac surgeon at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, stands next to Yacub, a two-year-old Afghan whose life he saved, on February 23, 2017 (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Dr. Hagi Dekel, an Israeli cardiac surgeon at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, stands next to Yacub, a two-year-old Afghan whose life he saved, on February 23, 2017 (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

Yacub’s surgery, and the flight tickets for him and his father, were funded by the Israeli charity Save a Child’s Heart, which provides free surgeries for children from developing countries. SACH also did the ground work to get Yacub and his father visas to visit Israel, overcoming the fact that Israel and Afghanistan don’t have diplomatic relations.

It wasn’t the first time over the past year that SACH’s executive director, Simon Fisher, acquired Israeli visas for an Afghani family.

To get to Israel, Yacub followed a path traveled last July by Yehia, an Afghan baby whose parents live in Peshawar, Pakistan. Yehia was the first Afghan to be treated by SACH, joining children from over 50 other countries whose lives have been saved by the organization.

Yehia’s younger sister was meant to be the second Afghan brought by SACH to Israel, but she died before the bureaucratic red tape could be surmounted.

Both Yacub and Yehia’s parents were connected with SACH by a teacher who lives in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

“He is the rainmaker in this context. The Afghan with no fear who believes in doing the right thing to save a child’s life,” Fisher said of this teacher.

According to Fisher, the teacher worked directly with the Afghan authorities to help secure travel visas for Yacub and Yehia.

When Yehia’s parents asked him for help last year, he immediately contacted his Facebook friend Anna Mussman, 69, a daughter of Holocaust survivors living in Israel. Mussman, who had once been Simon Fisher’s high school English teacher, contacted SACH’s director.

Yacub’s father, who asked to remain unnamed in this article because he fears for his safety, was put in touch with the teacher just two months ago through a family friend who had heard of his success story with Yehia.

Upon Yacub’s arrival in Israel, he was rushed from the airport to the hospital. Dr. Dekel said that when he first saw the child he was “surprised he had made it this far… He was dying every day for the past two years.”

After a succesful surgery, Dr. Dekel said Yacub will “live like any normal boy.”

The teacher was not only instrumental in securing the journey to Israel for Yacub. He also used his Facebook connections to a find a native Urdu speaker in Israel to help overcome the language barrier. Well before the teacher had ever heard of SACH, he had been in correspondence over Facebook with Michael Davidson, a 70-year-old Urdu-speaking Israeli who immigrated from India in 1978. He asked Davidson to help out.

Michael Davidson, a 70-year-old Urdu-speaking Israeli who immigrated from India in 1978, stands next to Yacub, a two-year-old Afghan whose life was saved in Israel, on February 23, 2017. Davidson helped translate for the family. (Dov Lieber / Times of Israel)
Michael Davidson, a 70-year-old Urdu-speaking Israeli who immigrated from India in 1978, stands next to Yacub, a two-year-old Afghan whose life was saved in Israel, on February 23, 2017. Davidson helped translate for the family. (Dov Lieber/Times of Israel)

“When I woke up yesterday morning, my Facebook told me it has been exactly two years since [the teacher] and I became friends,” Michael Davidson told The Times of Israel in the lobby of the Pediatric ER at the Wolfson Center on Thursday.

There was also a second translator who helped both Afghani families. Fisher, after contacting an old army friend who he remembered was of Afghani descent, was put in touch with Jacob Gul, 56, a retired rug seller, who left Kabul 32 years ago and now lives in Holon.

Gul, who speaks Dari — an Afghani form of Persian — picked up Yacub and his father at Ben Gurion airport and has been with them for nearly their entire stay.

Yacub’s father said he had no real concept of Israel before he arrived in the Jewish state, but that it didn’t really matter where he was taking his son, as long as he received proper care.

“I would go to hell and back in order to save him,” he said.

He was more worried about the impact the arduous journey would have on the infant than the destination.

“When I got [to the Wolfson center], and saw how each child is cared for by two nurses, I decided I wasn’t going to worry,” said Yacub’s father.

Two-year-old Yacub and his father arrive in Ben Gurion airport on February 14th, 2017. (Courtesy)
Two-year-old Yacub and his father arrive in Ben Gurion Airport on February 14, 2017. (Courtesy)

In the room with Yacub, two Palestinian children, a child from Kenya and an Ethiopian-Israeli were also being cared for. Yacub’s father said he was shocked by the diversity found in the medical center’s pediatric care ward.

The non-Israeli children beside Yacub were all there thanks to SACH.

The organization, whose $3.5 million annual budget is covered mostly by private Jewish donors, has saved the lives of over 4,000 children. Half of the patients come from Gaza and the West Bank, while others from Tanzania, China, Iraq, Syria and Ethiopia.

According to Fisher, the teacher has already found two more Afghani children he hopes to bring to Israel, and a Jewish-Afghani family living in the United States has agreed to donate the funds for one of the operations.

How did Yacub’s father feel when Dr. Dekel told him his son would live?

“I was so happy that my heart stopped beating,” he said with a large smile.

When asked whether he would tell his son the story of his heart surgery, the father said, “I am a going to tell him how he caused me a lot of grief, so he will have to study hard and become a doctor.”

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