“The Israel Advocate”

By Nathan Borsky, Israel Advocate Chairman

Dear Readers, every winter when I’m in Israel I am awed by this fantastic Jewish country that is “A LIGHT ONTO THE NATIONS”.

This small country is a GIANT IN HEART AND SPIRIT. I am so proud to bring to you this article about the Israeli charity SACH (Save A Child’s Heart), part of the ISRAELI MEDICAL ASSOCIATION.

Two-year-old Yacub’s family was put in touch with this Israeli charity with the help of a Jalalabad English teacher and his Facebook connections.

From the moment Yacub was born, he lived at death’s door. His father, a wheat and rice farmer from Baghlan Province in northern Afghanistan, who was unable to afford the surgery he needed, left his son’s fate in God’s hands. He never imagined that, through a near miraculous path paved by a few Facebook friends, his child’s life would ultimately be saved by the hand of an Israeli surgeon.

For the first three months, no doctor could diagnose the problem. Yacub hardly ate, he didn’t grow, and he cried constantly. His father eventually found a German clinic in Kabul where doctors said the baby would need heart surgery in India: Yacub was suffering from Tetralogy of Fallot (TOF), a congenital heart disease that prevents blood from getting to the lungs and oxidizing.

But the father didn’t have the money for the journey to India or for the surgery.

When the Afghan baby, now two years old, arrived at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport on February 14th, his skin was a pale blue. He was “half-dead,” according to Dr. Hagi Dekel, the Israeli cardiac surgeon who operated on him hours later at the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon.

Yacub’s surgery, and the flight tickets for him and his father, were funded by the Israeli charity Save a Child’s Heart, which provides free surgeries for children from developing countries. SACH also did the ground work to get Yacub and his father visas to visit Israel, overcoming the fact that Israel and Afghanistan don’t have diplomatic relations.

It wasn’t the first time over the past year that SACH’s executive director, Simon Fisher, acquired Israeli visas for an Afghani family.

To get to Israel, Yacub followed a path traveled last July by Yehia, an Afghan baby whose parents live in Peshawar, Pakistan. Yehia was the first Afghan to be treated by SACH, joining children from over 50 other countries whose lives have been saved by the organization.

Yehia’s younger sister was meant to be the second Afghan brought by SACH to Israel, but she died before the bureaucratic red tape could be surmounted.

Both Yacub and Yehia’s parents were connected with SACH by Farhad Zaheer, an Englishspeaking teacher who lives in the eastern Afghan city of Jalalabad.

“He is the rainmaker in this context. The Afghan with no fear who believes in doing the right thing to save a child’s life,” Fisher said of Zaheer.

According to Fisher, Zaheer — a well-known children’s activist in his native city and president of its Rotary Club — worked directly with the Afghan authorities to help secure travel visas for Yacub and Yehia. The Pashtun Times, earlier this month, published a glowing review of Zaheer, calling him a “heroic Afghan” for his role in bringing Yacub and Yehia to Israel.

When Yehia’s parents asked their relative Zaheer for help last year, he immediately contacted his Facebook friend Anna Mussman, 69, a daughter of Holocaust survivors living in Israel. Mussman, who had once been Simon Fisher’s high school English teacher, contacted SACH’s director. Yacub’s father, who asked to remain unnamed in this article because he fears for his safety, was put in touch with Zaheer just two months ago through a family friend who had heard of the teacher’s success story with Yehia. Upon Yacub’s arrival in Israel, he was rushed from the airport to the hospital. Dr. Dekel said that when he first saw the child he was “surprised he had made it this far… He was dying every day for the past two years.” After a successful surgery, Dr. Dekel said Yacub will “live like any normal boy.”

Zaheer was not only instrumental in securing the journey to Israel for Yacub, he also used his Facebook connections to a find a native Urdu speaker in Israel to help overcome the language barrier. Well before Zaheer had ever heard of SACH, he had been in correspondence over Facebook with Michael Davidson, a 70-year-old Urdu-speaking Israeli who immigrated from India in 1978. He asked Davidson to help out.

There was also a second translator who helped both Afghani families. Fisher, after contacting an old army friend who he remembered was of Afghani descent, was put in touch with Jacob Gul, 56, a retired rug seller, who left Kabul 32 years ago and now lives in Holon. Gul, who speaks Dari - an Afghani form of Persian - picked up Yacub and his father at Ben Gurion airport and has been with them for nearly their entire stay.

Yacub’s father said he had no real concept of Israel before he arrived in the Jewish state, but that it didn’t really matter where he was taking his son, as long as he received proper care. “I would go to hell and back in order to save him,” he said. He was more worried about the impact the arduous journey would have on the infant than the destination. “When I got [to the Wolfson center], and saw how each child is cared for by two nurses, I decided I wasn’t going to worry,” said Yacub’s father.

In the room with Yacub, two Palestinian children, a child from Kenya and an Ethiopian-Israeli were also being cared for. Yacub’s father said he was shocked by the diversity found in the medical center’s pediatric care ward. The non-Israeli children beside Yacub were all there thanks to SACH.

The organization, whose $3.5 million annual budget is covered mostly by private Jewish donors, has saved the lives of over 4,000 children. Half of the patients come from Gaza and the West Bank, while others from Tanzania, China, Iraq, Syria and Ethiopia. According to Fisher, Zaheer has already found two more Afghani children he hopes to bring to Israel, and a Jewish-Afghani family living in the United States has agreed to donate the funds for one of the operations.

How did Yacub’s father feel when Dr. Dekel told him his son would live? “I was so happy that my heart stopped beating,” he said with a large smile. When asked whether he would tell his son the story of his heart surgery, the father said, “I am a going to tell him how he caused me a lot of grief, so he will have to study hard and become a doctor.”

This article was written by Dov Lieber and published in the Times of Israel