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'They have no other options but Israel'

Kurdish babies’ lives hang in balance as Israeli red tape blocks their last hope

Doctors near Tel Aviv are ready to operate, but a hellish bureaucratic mess between government bodies means sick children are being kept from surgery that can save their lives

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Hena, a Yazidi newborn from Sinjar, waits in a Duhok hospital for permission to enter Israel for life-saving heart surgery. (Shevet Achim)
Hena, a Yazidi newborn from Sinjar, waits in a Duhok hospital for permission to enter Israel for life-saving heart surgery. (Shevet Achim)

Three weeks ago, doctors at Sheba Hospital near Tel Aviv told the family of newborn Hena that she must have emergency surgery within two weeks or they risk losing her.

Though they had never seen her, physicians at Sheba were prepared to treat Hena, who 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 and puts her at immediate risk.

But for Hena to make it to the hospital for a life-saving operation, she must pass through a daunting gauntlet of Israeli bureaucracy coupled with special coronavirus restrictions, leaving her and other children seeking life-saving treatment in turbid limbo.

“These are really hard days for me — when I look at my sick daughter and I can’t do anything for her,” Hena’s father told The Times of Israel from a refugee camp near Duhok, Iraq. “We were told that we had to take her outside of the country, and it’s hard to travel, especially to Israel.”

Hena is one of nine babies from Iraqi Kurdistan to have had their applications to enter Israel for emergency heart surgery rejected in the past two weeks, as Israel’s bureaucracy bounces 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 a surgery performed on infants in the first two months of life.

A Kurdish academic battling Stage IV liver cancer has also been turned down.

“They have no other options but Israel,” said Jonathan Miles, the founder of Shevet Achim, a Christian aid organization that brings children from neighboring Arab countries to Israel for medical treatment.

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.

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.

Israel has heavily restricted entry to the country via land or air since January 25, including for citizens, in an effort to keep fast-spreading variants of the coronavirus from slipping in. A government-run Exceptions Committee has been 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.

Illustrative: A father waits while hospital staff attend to his baby, brought to Israel for life-saving heart surgery by Shevet Achim NGO. (Screen capture: Vimeo)

Nonetheless, the mechanism for bringing in sick children worked smoothly up until this month, said Miles.

Shevet Achim would submit a request to the Interior Ministry, which would ask the Shin Bet internal security agency to perform a background check. The Interior Ministry would then send a notice to Israel’s consular department in Amman, Jordan, to provide visas for the children and a family member.

“The Israeli consulate would also appeal to the Exceptions Committee through the Foreign Ministry” to allow entry to Israel, Miles explained.

The process took one day.

Israelis who had returned from Dubai queue to receive exemptions from hotel quarantine at Ben Gurion Airport, December 28, 2020. (Screen Capture: Channel12)

There are currently eight Kurdish babies being treated in Israeli hospitals who were approved under this procedure. They received approval from the Interior Ministry on January 27, received visas on  February 2, and entered Israel through Jordan last week.

But things appeared to have changed by the time Shevet Achim staff submitted requests to the Interior Ministry’s Population and Immigration Authority for six of the babies on March 9, and another three on March 15.

The Population and Immigration Authority told the group that they would not process the applications until they had approval from the Exceptions Committee, in what appears to be a change in procedure.

“Interior started saying we need to see that letter [from the Exceptions Committee] first,” said Miles, “and that’s overturned the whole process. Everyone’s saying ‘no, you go first, you go first,’ and nobody is doing anything.”

Fuad Jamal (L), Hiwa Sherzad, and Jonathan Miles inspect the ID papers of a Syrian Kurdish refugee family whose baby is a candidate for heart surgery in Israel (photo credit: Times of Israel/Lazar Berman)

On March 11, the Interior Ministry informed Miles that it would accept the applications, but would still not send an approval letter to the embassy in Jordan until it received a letter from the Exceptions Committee.

Per the Interior Ministry instructions, Miles submitted the requests to the Exceptions Committee, with invitation letters from Sheba Medical Center for each child, which were all rejected. The committee informed Miles that the request must come directly from the Israeli hospital that would treat the patients — invitations were not enough.

The International Medical Tourism Division at Sheba turned to the doctor on the Exceptions Committee, who informed the Sheba staff that they must first obtain an approval letter from the Shin Bet, then from the Population and Immigration Authority, before going to the Exceptions Committee.

On Monday, Miles wrote to Michal Yosefov, director of the Temporary Entries Department in the Population Authority, emphasizing that “every day that passes one or more of the babies could die. It is obvious to all that these cases meet the criteria of the Committee.”

“According to the information at hand, the arrival of the children to Israel has not been approved at this stage,” was the matter-of-fact reply. “If another decision is made, we will act accordingly.”

Sabine Hadad, the spokeswoman for the Population and Immigration Authority, said that she did not know of any changes in the procedure for approving entry into Israel.

“The necessary permit is from the Health Ministry,” she told The Times of Israel. “And if the case is indeed urgent, they can turn urgently to the Health Ministry. We certainly will not hold them up, but presenting false claims is a bigger problem.”

Miles said Hadad’s response only made sense if she was referring to the Health Ministry representative on the Exceptions Committee.

“For many years the Interior Ministry has sanctified God’s name by helping save lives of children no one else cares about. If they’ll take the first step now by giving their approval, we believe the other authorities will follow their lead,” said Miles in response to Hadad’s statement.

Shas party chief Interior Minister Aryeh Deri speaks at an election rally in Jerusalem on March 11, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Barak Sari, spokesman for Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, refused repeated requests by phone and text message to comment.

For Miles, a US national, the current bureaucratic mess flies in the face of his experience with Israel and its people over the past two decades.

“Over many years, the heart of the people of Israel is to care about the lives of these children,” said Miles. “They do everything possible to rescue them when nobody else in the world seems to care. This is the glory of the people of Israel. I am convinced that this is who that people is, what they are called to do in this world.”

“This is why no one can accept that a committee will suddenly overturn and prevent the people of Israel from showing hessed and rachmanut to their neighbors,” he concluded, using the Hebrew terms for acts of lovingkindness and mercy.

Blue and White MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh (Avishai Finkelstein)

“This extreme humanitarian case has seemingly fallen between the cracks, between the closure and subsequent reopening of the airport,” said MK Michal Cotler-Wunsh, who is working to help find a timely solution. “It is imperative to remedy this, and I am hopeful that the Minister of Health whom I approached will prioritize and expedite, working with the Ministry of Interior to enable these life-saving medical procedures.”

‘I try to see human nature’

Hena’s father, who requested his name not be used due to the sensitivity of the situation, told The Times of Israel that he had pinned his hopes on Israel after being advised that Iraqi doctors could do nothing for Hena and that he should get her “urgent treatment” abroad.

He said that he did not see sending his daughter to an Israeli hospital as a problem. Iraq does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and the two countries remain technically at war to this day, but many Kurds, who seek their own state, are in favor of friendly ties with Israel.

“I see Israel like every country. I try to see the human nature behind countries, without the prism of religion or ideology. I see Israel as a country that sees those in need and strives to help them,” said the father, a Yazidi originally from Sinjar.

An Iraqi Yazidi woman who fled the violence in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, cries as she stands among others at a school where they are taking shelter in the Kurdish city of Dohuk in Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, on August 5, 2014. (photo credit: AFP/SAFIN HAMED)

The Kurdish university official suffering from liver cancer, who also asked that his name not be used, said he was advised by his doctors that Israel was the best option for him.

“I do understand that there are regulations in place for foreigners who want to travel to Israel and I am fully committed to respect all the regulations,” he emphasized. “I chose Israel because it has the best treatment available for my case. I also stated that I would pay for all the expenses by myself, which helps Israel and the Israeli people as a way of health tourism and income generation,” he said.

“We as Kurds believe that Israel and Israeli people are the closest people to us,” he continued. “We do have deep respect for Israel and share many common points that we can invest in to further strengthen relations and ties in an environment that is hostile to both sides.”

A Kurdish university official who is waiting to be granted entrance into Israel for cancer surgery (Courtesy)

The Population and Immigration Authority – Permits Committee has also rejected the applications of nine Shevet Achim volunteers to enter the country.

“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,” the committee responded on March 18 to a volunteer 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.”

The organization currently only has six staff members in Israel to help care for more than 15 families in the country for medical treatment.

Kurdish baby Yousif, waiting to enter Israel for heart surgery (photo credit: Shevet Achim)

The group is still working furiously to try and cut through the brambles of red tape in the hopes of bringing the patients to Israel in time to save them. In the meantime, Hena’s family is keeping vigil with her at a hospital in Duhok, each day more fraught than the last.

“She’s just waiting, the family is waiting,” Miles lamented. “No word from the Exceptions Committee, and they’re just watching this baby about to die.”

Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report. 

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