THE HEART OF THE MATTER
When Ali was born in December 2010, in Jericho, with blue lips, fingers and toes, signs of congenital heart disease, his parents and doctor knew there was only one place where he would receive the treatment he needed to save his life. Although separated by a mere 130 kilometres, Jericho, in the West Bank, and the Wolfson Medical Center, in Holon, Israel, are a world apart. Yet only four days after he was born, Ali underwent surgery at Save a Child’s Heart (SACH), based at the Wolfson Medical Center. Two months later, Ali was brought back to SACH to undergo another successful bout of surgery. What is so remarkable about this story is that it happens on a daily basis thanks to the doctors, nurses and staff at Save a Child’s Heart.
The mission of SACH is to provide free critical paediatric heart surgery to children from developing countries who suffer from heart disease and to create centres of competence in these countries. SACH is dedicated to the idea that every child deserves the best medical treatment available, regardless of the child’s nationality, religion, colour, gender or financial situation.
Of the more than 2,800 children that SACH has saved, 49% come from the Palestinian Territories. This fact exemplifies the motto of the organization: “Mending Hearts, Building Bridges.” Some 40% of the children who underwent cardiac surgeries are from Africa, Jordan, Iraq and Morocco; 4% are from Eastern Europe and the Americas; and 7% are from Asia. As part of the process, SACH also accepts medical personnel from the patients’ countries and trains them in life-saving paediatric cardiology and follow-up care. Despite the hardships it faces, SACH has a stunning success rate of 96%.
This past year has been a momentous one for SACH. Ali, the newborn from Jericho, was the 2,800th child saved by the organization since it was founded. In recognition of the doctors, staff and young people who come from all over the world to work as volunteers, this year SACH will receive the Israeli Presidential Award for Volunteerism. This award is given each year to an individual or organization that embodies the spirit of volunteerism.
SACH was founded in 1996 by Dr Amram Cohen, who immigrated to Israel from the United States in 1992. He died in a tragic accident while climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in August 2001. SACH is an all-volunteer organization funded by donations from around the world. It costs approximately US$10,000 to bring a child to Israel for surgery and post-op care. All the doctors and nurses who work with SACH do so without compensation for the public good in addition to their regular responsibilities.
All of this follows the award of consultative status to SACH by the ECOSOC Committee of the United Nations, officially recognizing the life-saving work performed by the organization in the Middle East and around the world. The significance of this accomplishment was captured by Simon Fisher, Executive Director of SACH: “I think it is very important as it sends a message of trust-building and co-operation between people living on opposite sides in a conflict zone. Working towards a better future through day-to-day tangible activities is essential while leaders and politicians attempt to resolve conflicts in politics and diplomacy. I believe this paves the way for many more Israeli and Palestinian organizations and it adds to the trustworthiness and meaningfulness of the UN system.”
As one of the few organizations that regularly brings Israelis and Palestinians together, SACH plays a unique role in the Middle East. In addition to the children that come to SACH for surgery, the organization holds a weekly clinic at the Wolfson Medical Center where Palestinian families bring their children for screening. The close collaboration between Israeli doctors and Palestinian doctors and families allows the organization to play a constructive role in building the potential for co-existence between the two peoples.
During the ECOSOC meeting, the Palestinian delegation at the UN was given the floor to ask questions. According to Mr Fisher: “before asking the question, the Palestinian representative chose in his opening remarks to commend SACH for what it is doing for Palestinian children, particularly the services that it carries out in places where governments cannot provide such services. After the session ended, I rushed to the podium in great excitement to thank and shake the hand of the Palestinian rep for his support. We exchanged cards and remain in contact … Mending hearts, building bridges!”
Simon Fisher shares with us his experience at the UN ECOSOC Committee as part of the application process for consultative status.
Q: What was it like being at the United Nations?
Attending this UN session was a wonderful opportunity to conduct a dialogue with representatives of delegations from countries with which an Israeli representing an Israeli NGO would not usually have an opportunity to interact.
Q: How difficult was the process for SACH, and how do you feel that it compares to the experience of other organizations?
At the official NGO committee session, an Israeli organization automatically generates interest. SACH treats children from forty countries, including Palestinian children and children from countries with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations.
Q: What is the biggest benefit that SACH receives through its consultative status?
The biggest benefit is international recognition of its work and the possibility of giving voice to the voiceless children suffering from heart disease, especially those suffering from rheumatic heart disease –– a disease unknown in the developed world –– that could be eradicated with more awareness. It is an opportunity to highlight both the work being done and, at the same time, the tremendous need.
Q: How important do you think it is that the UN recognizes an organization like SACH, transcending the conflict in the Middle East?
I think it is very important as it sends a message of trust-building and co-operation between people living on opposite sides in a conflict zone. Working towards a better future through day-to-day tangible activities is essential while leaders and politicians are attempting to resolve conflicts through politics and diplomacy. I believe this paves the way for many more Israeli and Palestinian organizations, and it adds to the trustworthiness and meaningfulness of the UN system
Q: How does SACH reach children from countries which don’t have diplomatic ties with Israel?
There are always obstacles. However, obstacles exist in order to be overcome. The bottom line is that nothing will stop us from treating a child in need of care and the Israeli authorities are fully supportive of the initiative, as are the Palestinian and Jordanian authorities.
Q: Do you observe changes in the relationship between parents coming from countries in conflict with Israel and the medical corps during the treatment?
Of course! Many families come with a feeling of fear, not knowing what to expect and relying mainly on what the local media have told them. They leave Israel as our friends for life and as part of the international family of SACH. They have touched and been touched by the scores of volunteers surrounding them throughout their stay in Israel, be it the doctors, the nurses, lay people, Jews, Muslim or Christians. SACH is a true eye-opener to the good that exists in humanity and helps eradicate stereotypes, for both Israelis and Arabs coming together in the best interest of children in the Middle East –– OUR Future.