KURDISTAN REGION, Iraq — A grandmother steps out warily into the muddy street. The sun setting behind the jagged mountains to the west casts a pink hue over the tents of the refugee camp. She wraps her blue scarf around her face, sizing up the unannounced visitors who are asking to see her granddaughter.
The seven-month-old child lies motionless in her arms, eyes barely open, breath slow and shallow.
The baby is fighting ventricular septal defect, a hole in the wall that divides the left and right ventricles of the heart. She weighs only three kilograms, and doctors here in Iraq won’t operate on her until she gets much bigger. But the same hole in her heart keeps her from growing.
It’s the first week of January, and a winter in the cold, damp refugee camp means that the only question about her future is whether she succumbs to a chest infection or her defective heart first. Her family still has a tank of kerosene to heat the tent, but it will soon run out, with little chance of being replaced.
Here in the refugee camp, fuel and hope are in equally short supply. But the visitors who have come all the way to the mountains of Iraq’s Kurdistan region to find this baby girl just might be able to offer the latter.
The visitors are from the Jerusalem-based Christian NGO Shevet Achim, founded by Jonathan Miles almost 20 years ago. (The Times of Israel wrote about Shevet Achim last June, when this reporter accompanied 4-year-old Nadrah, a Syrian refugee in Jordan, to Israel for a life-saving operation.) It brings sick children from the Muslim world into Israel for heart surgery; the group’s mission today is to locate Syrian Kurdish refugee children who need urgent medical attention in the camps of northern Iraq in order to arrange access for them to Israel’s pediatric heart surgeons.
Fleeing their homes in the midst of a brutal civil war is perilous enough; doing so with a baby battling a heart defect is almost hopeless. But now that they had been located, this family from the Syrian Kurdish city of Qamishli suddenly has options. If they can get into Israel.
Miles, the bespectacled leader of the Shevet Achim group, begins to gather the information needed to save her.
“Where are the child’s parents?” Miles asks in Arabic.
“Her mother died during childbirth,” the grandmother responds. “The father abandoned his daughter when he heard about his wife’s death. I am responsible for her now,” she tells us, “me and my husband.”
“What about a passport?” Miles asks. “Does she have one? Do you?”
The child doesn’t, but the grandmother has ID papers from the UN refugee agency.
Just then the grandfather, Muhammad, arrives, a group of unshaven men in tow. Someone has told him that a team of Americans and Kurds has shown up at his tent, and he looks concerned. News in the camp is almost always bad news.
Miles and Hiwa Sherzad, a young Kurdish doctor, explain why they have come.
“Where do you want to take her?” Muhammad asks.
“Al-Quds,” says Miles. “Jerusalem.”
“Palestine?” he asks.
“Israel,” says Miles.
Muhammad takes a moment to weigh that answer. But just a moment. “Alright,” he says. “Alright.”
There are still countless hurdles to overcome before the little girl can reach Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, which has already agreed to treat her, but now that she’s been found and her grandparents convinced, she might have a chance. But the weather grows colder, and the clock is ticking.
And so, in the crowded refugee camp, while groups of young Kurds run between the tents and their parents stare into the distance as if waiting for some unseen savior, the complexities of the real Middle East play themselves out. It’s not the black-and-white, Muslim versus Jew Middle East imagined by the American Studies Association or adherents of the Clash of Civilizations theory. It’s another, far more complex Middle East, with countless shades of gray, unspoken alliances, and people from a spectrum of communities cooperating in an attempt to give their families and peoples a chance at a better future.
Israel often stands at the center of those efforts, as it does in this case: Three Americans from a Christian NGO in the Jewish state are working to save a Muslim Kurdish child fleeing a war between the Syrian Alawite regime and Sunni jihadist groups, in the pro-Western autonomous Kurdish region of the Iraqi Republic increasingly dominated by Shiite Iran.
A powerful revelation
How does this system work? How does a sick Syrian child languishing in a camp in the mountains of Kurdistan actually end up in the operating room at Wolfson? To investigate this network spanning borders and faiths, I joined Shevet Achim on its mission to track down sick Syrian Kurdish children. The organization covered my travel and lodging expenses during my stay.
The NGO came into being two decades ago when Miles stumbled across an immigrant Ukrainian family in Israel trying to come up with $64,000 for leukemia treatment. After praying and enlisting the help of the Hadassah women’s organization and Israel’s president Ezer Weizman, Miles found donors willing to open their pocketbooks to save a child, while the hospital agreed to bring down the price of the operation.
The experience spurred Miles to continue the work of helping children access Israeli medical centers. The organization took off, and started bringing in Gazan and Jordanian children. After Saddam Hussein’s regime was toppled in 2003, it began operating in Iraqi Kurdistan, relying on private donations from Christians around the world.
The goal of this January trip was to make contact — somehow — with sick children Shevet Achim had heard about from Western doctors who had passed through, local humanitarian organizations, newspapers, and word of mouth.
Once they arrived, there were no guarantees the NGO group members would actually find the children. They hunted down leads, called local doctors, and spoke to other refugees until they had enough information about a sick child to attempt to reach him or her.
Locating the child was only the first challenge, and time was not an ally. Delays, which could come about for dozens of reasons, had the potential to push off a child’s arrival in Israel until his or her heart condition proved fatal. A relative, usually the mother, had to be convinced it was safe enough to travel to Israel. For many of the women, it would be their first time traveling without male supervision. Families, especially Syrian refugees, often lacked passports, and finding some sort of documentation that would enable them to travel to Israel was essential.
Then, once permits were granted, surgeries scheduled, and funding secured, Shevet Achim had to hope that word of the impending trip would not spread to the wrong people. In Kurdistan, that usually means Iran and its agents. The camps, especially in the Sulaymaniyah region, were crawling with Iranian intelligence and sympathizers, and the family was in danger of significant pressure to force them to back out of a trip to Israel.
I was asked to change the names of the refugee children to protect them from Iranian agents.
‘The more we do, the more helpless I feel’
Flexibility and adaptability — core ingredients of Israeli business and battlefield success — defined the mission. Miles decided, on December 31, that he had amassed enough leads on desperate children to actually make the trip, and the very next day, a Wednesday, Miles, another Shevet Achim staffer and I were in a van driving to the Beit She’an border crossing, en route to fly from Amman to Sulaymaniyah’s airport. Two more staff members awaited us in Kurdistan.
The trip to the first refugee camp, where the Syrian grandparents were caring for the dying baby, came together the day after we landed, when Miles made contact with a 20-year-old Kurdish medical student who volunteers in the camp. Miles had seen the student’s name on a report sent to him by retired US Air Force doctor Kirk Milhoan, who, together with his wife, founded For Hearts and Souls, a missionary organization that travels the world to provide medical care.
Fuad Jamal, the medical student, met Miles in a café in one of Kurdistan’s major cities on Thursday, and agreed that same day to take him to the camp to find the seven-month-old child. Hiwa Sherzad, who had worked with Shevet Achim in the past, joined them for the trip.
With classical music filling Sherzad’s car, the drive to the camp was unexpectedly tranquil as we navigated the city’s hectic streets. The sun set the red sky alight behind us as we drove east out of the city. Modernity slowly relaxed its hold, then released us altogether as office buildings and malls made way for the simple farms and rocky hills lining the route to the camp.
For Sherzad, helping Kurdish victims of Bashar Assad is especially personal. His family was torn apart by another Ba’athist dictator, Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. Sherzad’s father fought in the Peshmerga, the Kurdish militia, and when Hussein began his Anfal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s, the family was captured and separated. His mother was thrown into solitary confinement, and he never saw his father again.
After being released six months later, Sherzad, his mother, and his sister lived in the same refugee camp to which he was now driving with the Shevet Achim group. His mother remarried, but the new marriage caused more troubles for Sherzad and his sister, and they went to live with relatives. “I have never seriously felt where I am from,” said Sherzad.
He met Miles in 2010 while working with Milhoan, the ex-air force doctor. They began collaborating, and Sherzad even visited Israeli hospitals in December 2012. “I always saw a similarity between Kurdistan and Israel,” he said, “from a historical point of view, what they went through; social and cultural also. I always had feelings for them, and Shevet made that feeling stronger, especially when I visited Israel.”
Before we reached our destination, we encountered a checkpoint manned by the Peshmerga. Five white jeeps on the side of the road overflowed with masked Asaish counterterrorism troops. We were on a road leading to Kurdistan’s border through semi-lawless tribal regions, and the Kurdish government wasn’t taking any chances. Although the car filled with Westerners on this road piqued their curiosity, the fighters had bigger problems to worry about, and they eventually waved us through.
The camp came into view shortly thereafter — rows of white tents emblazoned with the UNHCR logo, the occasional gray stone outhouse, a barbed-wire fence separating the camp from the burgeoning region outside. The camp was reestablished in the summer of 2013, with the majority of its over 2,500 inhabitants hailing from Qamishli. Twenty people shared each shower and toilet, and the UN provided basic household items, winterization kits, and a makeshift school and clinic.
The guards at the camp recognized Sherzad and Jamal. They ordered the group not to take pictures, but allowed us inside.
Now the search was on for the three children on whom they had leads. Jamal, with his experience volunteering in the camp, was invaluable, confidently navigating the rows of tents as he tracked down the children with the help of camp residents.
Jamal, a member of the Standing Committee on Human Rights and Peace in Kurdistan, which works to locate refugees in need of urgent medical care, feels overwhelmed sometimes by the scale of the human tragedy in the camps. “The more we do, the more helpless I feel,” he lamented as he searched for a little girl named Aya with a hole between the two upper chambers of her heart.
How do Syrian or Iraqi Kurds react when they find out they would have to travel to Israel for medical care? I inquired.
“People here don’t care about that,” responded Jamal. “Maybe a few Islamists somewhere. Israel is helping us, so we want them to continue.”
Sherzad has had a similar experience. “People I meet think almost the same as I do [about Israel], apart from some radical Muslims,” he explained. “I think only a few people think this way, because those I know who are also very good Muslims at the same time think of Israel as a friend, not an enemy.”
He said he has never witnessed a negative reaction when he offers the possibility of care in Israel.
We eventually located little Aya, who cried uncontrollably at first. She had been examined by Sherzad previously, and her father was happy to see him again. He had fled with his family out of Syria after Aya’s leg was injured during an aerial bombardment by the Bashar Assad regime. He readily agreed to move forward with efforts to bring her to Jerusalem, and said his wife would make the trip with Aya.
It was now dark, and using the report of an Italian team of doctors that had been in the camp, we found a 5-year-old with Down’s syndrome at risk of pulmonary hypertension.
Before we left, a former agricultural engineer named Mohammed, now a volunteer representative of the refugees to the Kurdish government, invited the Shevet Achim staff into his tent. Though he was a refugee in a foreign country, living in a cold, mud-splattered tent camp with his son fighting sickle-cell anemia, Mohammed’s neatly appointed tent projected dignity. The carpets on the ground were perfectly arrayed, the room warm and comfortable as his wife and daughter offered tea and coffee. The war had irreversibly disrupted their lives, but Mohammed and wife were working to turn their tent into a respectable, and hopefully temporary, home for their children.
A last chance to help her son
Other locals had heard that Kurds were being treated in Israeli hospitals, and initiated contact with Shevet Achim in an attempt to get their children to Israel for treatment. A woman who had survived the 1988 Halabja chemical attack only see her husband die from complications, brought her son to Sulaymaniyah to have his DNA extracted so it could be examined by Israeli doctors. Her son suffered from birth defects she blamed on the sarin and VX gas dropped by Saddam Hussein’s air force, and years of examinations by Iraqi and Iranian doctors yielded no answer.
“This is the last chance to help my son,” she said.
At the end of every initial encounter with a family, Miles makes sure to pray aloud for the child in Arabic.
“We make a point of praying, because we see God as the source of healing and hope and the resources to help these kids,” explained Miles. “Our neighbors pretty much think the same way, so I don’t think it is too strange for them that we pray together.”
Though he invokes Jesus’s name, Miles insists there is no proselytization involved. “We actually see ourselves as in exactly the same camp as our neighbors: broken humanity in need of the grace of God. We’re not interested in questions of institutions or religions. We do believe that God’s grace is found in the messiah, but he is in no way the possession of any particular group or religion.
“People who get to know us can see that our motivation is saving our neighbor’s dying child,” he added, “and when the motives of the heart are clear, there’s a lot of freedom to be ourselves without anyone being offended.”
‘We have no one helping us’
A white SUV drives through the front gate of the camp, north of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and stops beside our group. A man climbs out, his bearing indicating he wields authority here, and strides purposefully over. He greets us in Kurdish, taking a long look at our faces in the dark. He tells us he is responsible for the camp.
“Are you doctors?” he asks.
The NGO team members explain their mission, that they are looking for children with heart defects to arrange for treatment outside of Kurdistan.
“Where?” he asks.
“Israel,” says one of the guards.
He takes a minute to let the information sink in. “Israel, huh?”
“Yes,” says the guard. “My nephew was treated there.”
“Your nephew? Really,” the man says, then turns to the group. “First of all, don’t talk about that inside the camp.”
“We have no problem,” he continues, pointing at his Kurdish colleagues around him. “But there are Iranian intelligence agents in the camp, Iraqi Shiites, and they shouldn’t hear you mention that. Amongst us it’s fine, but since we’re part of Iraq, we can’t have ties with Israel.”
There is often surprise when parents first hear that the proposed treatment is in Israel, but almost always, any initial hesitation does not come from hostility.
One Syrian Kurdish refugee family living in a dark and cold apartment outside of Duhok asked if going to Israel would be safe — not while they were there, but when they returned to Iraq or Syria. Miles told a Kurdish doctor in the Darashakran refugee camp that Shevet Achim also helps Palestinians and Iraqi Kurds. “They have lots of people helping them,” the doctor said passionately. “We have no one helping us.”
“I think most parents, when they first hear about the possibility of their child going to Israel, are surprised,” recounted John, the only permanent staffer of Shevet Achim in Kurdistan. “More often than not, parents are open to going, but need some reassurance and an explanation, ‘Why Israel?’ Some families are enthusiastic about going and are disappointed to hear that only one parent is allowed to go. Occasionally, some parents make their preference known to go somewhere else… All of them are usually anxious to go before their child’s heart fails.
“For some families, however, it seems to have been more culturally difficult for them to accept that the mother will travel with her child outside of Kurdistan,” added John. “Most of the mothers have never been anywhere without another family member being with them. But for the most part, parents are willing to go for the sake of their children and, with some reassurances, trust the doctors in Israel to fix them.”
For Miles, this resonates with the unique calling of the Jews to be a blessing to all the peoples of the earth. “What a powerful message to say the one people who are thinking about these children are the people of Israel, the supposed enemy,” he reflected.
In between searches for specific children, the mission also provided the Shevet staff the opportunity to catch up with families whose children had been treated in Israeli hospitals, and gave me a glimpse into the impressions of Israel that remain when they return.
In Sulaymaniyah, the Shevet team slept on the floor in the house of a family whose 24-year-old son, Hezhan, had never been to school because of his heart condition. After undergoing surgery in Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center, he was now able to lead a normal life, and was in school learning how to read. He was eager to put his newfound skill to the test, picking up Miles’s Kurdish bible and struggling through the first chapter of Genesis.
Hezhan’s father, Feridun, came to Israel to accompany his son during treatment. Feridun visited Jerusalem, where he took a keen interest in his surroundings, visiting the Western Wall and learning some Jewish practices.
More or less.
When I told him one night that I was going to go pray, he sprung to his feet, and ordered his family to clear the couches and chairs away from one of the living room walls. He triumphantly led me by the arm until my nose was inches away from the bare wall. I was perplexed. “Kak Feridun, perhaps you misunderstood. I said I needed to go pray.”
“Yes,” he beamed. “I know that Jews must pray in front of a wall.”
Slight cultural misunderstandings aside, the families had warm recollections of their time in Israel. Dara, a Sulaymaniyah resident whose daughter underwent three surgeries in Israel for a complex heart defect that left her in a constant state of dangerous oxygen deprivation, holds a British passport, and was able to visit Israel twice while his family was staying at Shevet Achim’s residence in Jerusalem. He had been to India previously for his daughter’s treatment, but found the experience in Israel much different.
“We been in Israel just like a holiday,” he recalled. “Very nice people, very nice country, very nice hospital, and thank you to God. Before we traveled, we thinking very hard.”
He and his family even took in the Saharane festival last October, the annual celebration of Israel’s Kurdish community at Jerusalem’s Gan Sacher. Old Kurdish Jews were eager to speak to him in the language of their youth. The experience left an impression.
“The Kurdish people in Israel have not changed. The same. They respect us, and I like to see them.”
Our group drove up to Duhok Friday afternoon, a major city near the Turkish border that once boasted a sizable Jewish community. We were spending the weekend at the home of John, the Shevet staffer who had been living in Duhok for almost a year with his family. After gaining an interest in Jews when he read the Bible for the first time as a teenager, John studied at the Hebrew University in 1998. He started working with the Kurds during college, and moved to Iraqi Kurdistan in 2004 to study the language.
The next year, a Kurdish friend told him about her young cousin who was in need of heart surgery. He heard about Shevet Achim through friends working in a humanitarian NGO, and the child was treated in Israel. Word spread quickly in Kurdistan, and soon John had a list of children with congenital heart defects.
He left the region to go back to school, and returned last year to represent the NGO in Kurdistan.
On Saturday night, John arranged for those families in the Duhok area whose children had been treated in Israel to meet the Shevet Achim team at a restaurant in the city.
The meal was another unlikely gathering centered around saving children, made possible by Israel’s medical system even in countries with which Jerusalem has no official relations. Around the table sat the Christian Shevet Achim staffers, Muslim Kurds, and a recently widowed Yezidi man whose son was in Israel recovering from a complicated surgery. And, one of them pointed out, the restaurant sat on land formerly owned by Jews. One of the Kurdish fathers, a man of some significance in the Kurdish defense establishment, said that he doesn’t hide his daughter’s story. His family, he said, tells everyone who asks that his daughter was treated in Israel.
The search for ‘Liliana’
Not all attempts to find the children go smoothly. On December 1, The Sunday Times of London published a story about a 5-year-old named Liliana Jamal in the Darashakran refugee camp a half-hour from Erbil. The article indicated she would die if she wasn’t treated.
Though Miles and his staff had only the name of the child and of the camp, they figured they were likely the girl’s one chance at life-saving surgery. We took a cab from Erbil to the camp, but traffic and unmarked roads leading to the camp meant they arrived just before sunset.
After spending a night and the next morning searching, they located the child. It turns out the British newspaper’s reporter had changed the little girl’s name for an article, and the girl had already undergone an operation, and was doing well.
But the search for “Liliana” might save another child’s life. One of the guards helping Shevet Achim search for her told them that he knew of a 6-month-old child in the nearby Kawargosk camp who was struggling to survive.
The group decided to make the trip. They headed for the camp’s clinic, where they were given the tent number of the family, which wasn’t much help in the endless rows of tents. Finally, a doctor took the Shevet Achim staff to the family, who had fled from Qamishli like so many others.
The baby was almost impossibly emaciated and frail, and the mother immediately deposited him into the arms of one of the visitors. She seemed eager for help.
After photographing the family’s documents and medical reports, Miles set her up for an appointment with a senior Iraqi cardiologist, who discovered the child has atrial septal defect, in addition to Down’s syndrome, of which the family was unaware. But the Iraqi doctors refused to recommend surgery until the baby grew.
Back in Israel, Miles took the child’s documents to Wolfson, which agreed to operate if she could get into the country.
Armed with photographs, UN documents, and recommendations from Israeli doctors, Shevet Achim is involved in completing the final step to get the children they found in the course of the mission the care they need in Israel — approval from Israel’s Interior Minister, Gideon Sa’ar.
To Miles, it is not only in keeping with Israel’s values to approve the entry of these children, but also in the country’s national interest if it wishes to build goodwill with neighboring peoples. “These families notice that in their own countries, the value of every human life is not often appreciated,” he explained. “It is a powerful revelation for them, for the ‘enemy’ to be the first to treat their children as if they truly matter. And they go home and tell their story.”