After bureaucratic delays and coronavirus restrictions kept her from reaching Israel for emergency surgery, Yazidi newborn Hena from Iraqi Kurdistan was finally given permission to enter the country on Thursday.
Upon landing, the two-month-old was whisked directly to Sheba Medical Center near Tel Aviv where she began treatment.
Last month, The Times of Israel revealed the convoluted and ever-shifting set of instructions that the Interior Ministry, Foreign Ministry, and the Population and Immigration Authority’s Exceptions Committee provided to Shevet Achim, a Christian aid organization that brings children from neighboring Arab countries to Israel for medical treatment.
The bureaucratic buck-passing meant that Hena and eight other Kurdish babies could not reach Israel, even though Sheba Medical Center had sent official requests asking they be allowed into the country for the operations. More than a month ago, doctors at Sheba told Hena’s family she must have emergency surgery within two weeks or they risk losing her.
Israel has been barring entry to non-citizens because of the coronavirus pandemic, with exceptions made in humanitarian cases.
Hena was born on January 21 in Iraqi Kurdistan with numerous health complications, including pulmonary atresia, in which a heart defect makes it difficult for blood to reach the lungs to pick up oxygen. The condition put her life at immediate risk.
Her uncle accompanied her to Israel.
“We are grateful to the State of Israel for helping us in these difficult circumstances,” Hena’s father told The Times of Israel, speaking from a refugee camp near Duhok, Iraq. “We thank you, truly. For us as Hena’s family, this is an enormous happiness.”
“When she arrived at the hospital in Tel Aviv we rejoiced,” he said, stressing that “the doctors did not spare any effort in treating her.”
Hena is one of nine babies from Iraqi Kurdistan whose applications to enter Israel for emergency heart surgery were rejected in March, as Israeli bureaucracy bounced their applications between government offices. Four of the children suffer from transposition of the great arteries, a fatal syndrome in which the main arteries carrying blood from the heart are reversed. The condition can be corrected with an operation performed on infants in the first two months of life.
After Hena, the other eight children are expected to cross into Israel from Jordan on Tuesday, according to Shevet Achim founder Jonathan Miles.
Full disclosure: This reporter was flown by Shevet Achim to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2014 to write about the organization’s efforts to bring babies to Israel for surgery.
Miles himself, however, is not being granted permission to cross into Israel with the babies and their family members. The Kurdish families will have to cross the border from Jordan alone, where they will be picked up by Shevet Achim volunteers on the Israeli side.
Miles credits outgoing Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh and her staff for their intercession with Israeli authorities to cut through the bureaucratic knot.
“It was through the work of her office that these… children are entering Israel on Tuesday. It encourages us to see the people of Israel enter into the fight to bring these children to Israel. We see them as the leaders and we are foreign volunteers in a small supporting role,” he said.
Not all of the aid organization’s requests have been approved, however. The Exceptions Committee rejected the applications of nine Shevet Achim volunteers to enter the country.
“We have 17 families in Israel for treatment and only six workers,” Miles lamented. “Nine other workers have been waiting three months for permission to enter. We will enter into complete isolation on arrival, and respectfully request permission to enter so we can continue to support the Israeli medical staff in their work.”
The committee responded on March 18 to a volunteer request: “We have found that the application as submitted must be rejected, due to the following reasons: Your request does not meet the established criteria and, in particular, does not reflect a humanitarian need or a special personal need that justifies granting approval of your request. We hope that we will all soon overcome the current crisis and the many challenges that come with it and return to everyday life.”
For over two decades, Shevet Achim has facilitated life-saving medical treatment for hundreds of Palestinian, Jordanian, Iraqi and Syrian children at Israeli hospitals. The group has worked in close coordination with Save A Child’s Heart at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, and more recently with doctors and nurses at Sheba Medical Center.
Starting on January 25, Israel heavily restricted entry to the country via land or air including for citizens, in an effort to keep fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus from slipping in. The government-run Exceptions Committee was set up to grant permission to those looking to enter the country on a case-by-case basis, though it has been battered by criticism of its opaque decision-making process and accusations of being politically motivated.
Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.
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