An Unlikely Refuge: Some Wounded Syrians Treated In Israel

A wounded Syrian, suffering skull, stomach and pancreas injuries from an explosion, in intensive care at Ziv Medical Center in Israel. Hospital staff asked that faces and names not be included to protect the safety of the Syrian patients who could get in trouble with Syrian authorities if it were discovered that they were in Israel. i i

A wounded Syrian, suffering skull, stomach and pancreas injuries from an explosion, in intensive care at Ziv Medical Center in Israel. Hospital staff asked that faces and names not be included to protect the safety of the Syrian patients who could get in trouble with Syrian authorities if it were discovered that they were in Israel. Daniel Estrin/For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Estrin/For NPR
A wounded Syrian, suffering skull, stomach and pancreas injuries from an explosion, in intensive care at Ziv Medical Center in Israel. Hospital staff asked that faces and names not be included to protect the safety of the Syrian patients who could get in trouble with Syrian authorities if it were discovered that they were in Israel.

A wounded Syrian, suffering skull, stomach and pancreas injuries from an explosion, in intensive care at Ziv Medical Center in Israel. Hospital staff asked that faces and names not be included to protect the safety of the Syrian patients who could get in trouble with Syrian authorities if it were discovered that they were in Israel.

Daniel Estrin/For NPR

At about 2 p.m. on a recent day, hospital personnel at Ziv Medical Center in northern Israel got a text message from the Israeli army: We're on our way with four wounded Syrians. Half an hour later, two army ambulances pulled up to the emergency room.

Two soldiers carried in the injured Syrian, his hands covering his head. Then, another was brought in on a wheelchair.

Teams of army paramedics and hospital doctors huddled around the Syrians, asking their ages, tearing away their clothes and quickly assessing their injuries.

Dr. Alexander Lerner, head of orthopedics, stepped aside to discuss a new arrival: a 13-year-old boy with a blast wound to his arm.

"He can move his finger, but can't perform elevation of the arm, because of fracture," Lerner said.

'Will You Close Your Eyes And Say No?'

This is how it has been almost every day for the past six months. The wounded arrive from Syrian clinics with day-old injuries, rudimentary stitches and amputations. Some are women and children; others are adult men, some thought to be rebel fighters.

Israel has helped about 200 of the injured across the border for medical treatment.

No matter their role in the fighting, the Syrians have come here at great risk: They could face arrest or worse if Syria ever found out they visited Israel.

Two patients arrived clutching referral letters from Syrian doctors, written on plain notebook paper, one of them stained with blood.

A wounded Syrian who arrived in Israel brought this referral letter, written on a bloodstained piece of notebook paper, from a Syrian doctor explaining the patient's injuries. i i

A wounded Syrian who arrived in Israel brought this referral letter, written on a bloodstained piece of notebook paper, from a Syrian doctor explaining the patient's injuries. Daniel Estrin/For NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Daniel Estrin/For NPR
A wounded Syrian who arrived in Israel brought this referral letter, written on a bloodstained piece of notebook paper, from a Syrian doctor explaining the patient's injuries.

A wounded Syrian who arrived in Israel brought this referral letter, written on a bloodstained piece of notebook paper, from a Syrian doctor explaining the patient's injuries.

Daniel Estrin/For NPR

"My colleague the surgeon, best regards," one letter reads. "This patient, 38 years of age, has experienced a gunshot in the chest. ... We beseech you to do what is necessary, and we are grateful for your work."

Ziv Medical Center has spent $1.5 million so far on treating Syrians, said hospital director Dr. Oscar Embon. The hospital is now seeking donations for more equipment and prosthetic limbs. Embon said Israeli leaders made a political decision to keep Israel's borders closed to refugees, but he is proud to be treating those he can.

"It is one thing to sit at your table in an air-conditioned office and decide, the border should be closed and that's it," Embon said, speaking in his office. "But the other situation is when a very severe wounded person came to you. Will you close your eyes and say no?"

Syrians At Risk

Most of the Syrian patients here are alone – no family or friends by their side. They don't risk calling or emailing their families in Syria, either.

A pale 20-year-old patient, who flashed a wide grin when approached, said he was going to work last week when he heard shelling. He began helping people rush into shelters when a sniper shot him in the thigh. When he regained consciousness, he said, he found himself in a Coca-Cola truck with six other injured Syrians. It was nighttime.

"If we were to put the lights on, we knew the army would chase us and kill us all," said the patient, who did not give his name for fear of reprisals if he were to be identified as being in Israel.

"I didn't know I was coming to Israel, but I was told by some people that once you get there, you will be treated very well by the Israeli people," he said.

He said fighters from the Free Syrian Army took him and the other injured out of the truck and laid them out on the top of a hill. Then the Israeli army drove up and brought them across the border.

He said he would not like to return to Syria. "The village where I was living was all bombed. They shelled everything. They destroyed everything. Why should I go back?" he said.

But when he recovers, Israeli soldiers will drive him back to the Syrian border, just like the rest of those who were treated here and recuperated.

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