In first, 4 children from South Sudan to get life-saving heart surgery in Israel

Children with congenital heart disease will receive treatment at Holon’s Wolfson Medical Center as part of a joint initiative by Save a Child’s Heart and IsraAID

Illustrative -- Doctors and nurses take a child brought to Israel by Save a Child's Heart to recovery after the infant underwent open-heart surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, on August 13, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Illustrative -- Doctors and nurses take a child brought to Israel by Save a Child's Heart to recovery after the infant underwent open-heart surgery at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel, on August 13, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Israeli aid workers are poised to airlift four children from South Sudan to Tel Aviv to receive life-saving heart surgery.

Three years after the end of South Sudan’s civil war, the country’s health system is in chaos and doctors simply can’t provide specialist treatments like those needed for children with congenital heart conditions.

The Tel Aviv-based non-profit IsraAID has been planning for almost three years to bring four such children — Gai, aged 8, Habiba, 6, Phillip, 5, and Joel, 5 — to Israel for treatment. Now, they are finally leaving their homes in the Internally Displaced People (IDP) camps of Juba and preparing to fly.

The children will receive treatment at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, near Tel Aviv, as part of a joint initiative between IsraAID and Save a Child’s Heart. The Israel-based non-profits work in disaster relief and medical care, respectively.

“This is very exciting, because the treatment is so important to the children, and also because it’s finally happening after a long delay due to the pandemic,” Shachar May, a senior IsraAID official, told The Times of Israel on Sunday from Juba.

The surgeries represent the first time Save a Child’s Heart is working with communities in South Sudan, and will also mark the expansion of IsraAID’s South Sudan operations into the health sphere.

Illustrative image: Karina Andreiko, a 5-year-old Ukrainian girl, is prepped for heart surgery by a team led by Dr. Sagi Assa, head of invasive pediatric cardiology, from the Save A Child’s Heart non-profit organization, at the Wolfson Medical center in Holon, near Tel Aviv, Israel, May 2, 2022. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

May said the children who are about to travel could be the first of many, as around 100 others who need similar treatment have been identified, and IsraAID plans to work with Save a Child’s Heart to help more people from South Sudan.

The children who are traveling this week were initially screened in March 2019 during a Save a Child’s Heart mission to South Sudan.

“They will fly to Israel on Tuesday, three with their mothers and one with an aunt,” said May. “They will stay in Israel throughout their treatment, which will be a few months.”

As Save a Child’s Heart has been readying for their treatment, IsraAID has been providing emotional support to the children and their families, as well as working on the logistics.

They will spend several months, along with their guardians, at the Save a Child’s Heart Children’s Home as they recover after the surgery.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry paid for the flights of the children and their escorts as part of an initiative to bring children from 25 African countries to mark the 25th anniversary of Save a Child Heart’s founding.

“We’re incredibly grateful for this collaboration with Save a Child’s Heart,” said IsraAID’s Head of Health Sector, Sita Cacioppe. “We have a deep and long-standing connection and commitment to this community and these children, who have been a part of our programming in Juba for years.

“We’ve always been amazed by the strength and resilience of the community in South Sudan, and we’re proud to be working to support health and wellness on multiple levels in the community.”

Save a Child’s Heart is an Israeli NGO that, since its foundation in 1995, has helped more than 6,000 children travel from abroad with their families for critical operations.

The children have hailed from over 65 countries, most of which are in the developing world, and many of which have no diplomatic ties with Jerusalem.

Last week, a 5-year-old boy from Gaza underwent life-saving open-heart surgery at the Wolfson Medical Center, making him the 3,000th Palestinian child to undergo such surgery in Israel as part of Save a Child’s Heart’s program.

The grandmother of 5-year-old Gazan Amir Yichya Mabchuch kisses him on the head before he is taken in for open-heart surgery, at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, on November 21, 2022. (Tomer Noyberg/Save a Child’s Heart)

IsraAID is a non-governmental international humanitarian agency that has deployed teams to emergency situations, as well as running long-term development programs in more than 50 countries around the world.

South Sudan has suffered from chronic instability since winning independence from Sudan in 2011, including a civil war that killed nearly 400,000 people.

Earlier this month, the United Nations warned that almost eight million people, or two-thirds of the country’s population, were at risk of severe hunger due to extreme weather conditions, including widespread flooding.

FILE – A woman carries a bucket on her head as she wades through floodwaters in the village of Wang Chot, Old Fangak county, Jonglei state, South Sudan on Nov. 26, 2020 (AP Photo/Maura Ajak, File)

South Sudan’s government has withdrawn from peace negotiations with rebel groups, accusing them of using the talks “to buy time as they prepare for war,” according to a Friday report.

The talks between the government and a coalition of rebel groups, which did not sign a 2018 peace agreement that ended a five-year civil war, were brokered in Rome by a Catholic association with ties to the Vatican.

Negotiations began in 2019 but have failed to curb violence in the south of the country, despite a ceasefire signed in January 2020.

AFP contributed to this report.

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