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They Saved Her Child's Heart. Is This the Key to Mideast Peace?

01-06-2016
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TEL AVIV, Israel -- Mistrust and hatred often separate the people of the Middle East. Now a program in Israel is not only breaking down walls but saving lives in the process.

Meet 2-year-old Niyaz. She looks healthy, but without life-saving heart surgery she wouldn't live for long. That diagnosis came from doctors who encountered Niyaz in a Syrian refugee camp.

The decision to take the little girl to Israel was not an easy one for her mother. CBN News hid her identity over fears of possible repercussions.

"First, I was afraid of the thought of coming here. But after some thought and discussion with my husband, we decided it was worth it for the surgery," she said.

Bridging the Muslim-Jewish Divide

It was a perilous journey. Niyaz and her mother fled the Syrian war zone and headed to northern Iraq. They then made their way through Jordan and into Israel for treatment.

Niyaz received this opportunity a result of the work of Shevet Achim, which finds and helps at-risk kids throughout the Middle East.

The Christian outreach group serves as a bridge between the Muslim world and the Jewish state.

"We're grateful for the opportunity the Lord has given us to partner, to be that middle, to be those people who can go places the Jewish doctors can't go. People go to places that the Muslim families can't go," Shevet Achim's Joshua Miles told CBN News.

"We have been granted the opportunity to go to all the corners of the world to bring a message of peace and of love," he said.

The group works together with partners such as Save a Child's Heart and hospitals like the Wolfson Center in Tel Aviv. They provide life-saving surgery for children often from places that consider Israel the enemy. Dr. Lior Sasson co-founded the program 20 years ago.

"Maybe people will call me naïve, but dealing with the Palestinians and people, patients coming from enemy countries -- they know what we did for their child, and it put everything in new perspective," Sasson explained. "It seems we are not the monster everybody wants to draw us. I think it's like trust building steps." 

A Grim Prognosis

When Niyaz arrived, doctors gave her a grim prognosis.

"She already had damage to her lungs. That makes the surgery even more difficult because it makes it with a more complication rate," Dr. Alona Raucher-Sternfeld, senior pediatric cardiologist at Wolfson Medical Center, said.

As Niyaz's mother prepared her little girl for surgery, doctors scrubbed up for an operation they knew would be challenging. 

Niyaz suffers from a rare heart defect. She has a hole between her two major arteries. The doctors tried to close that hole, but it's complicated because ideally the surgery should have been done more than a year ago.

The operation took several hours and required a team of surgeons, nurses, and technicians with state-of-the-art equipment. Shevet Achim volunteers stayed with Niyaz's mother as she waited and hoped for a miracle.

"The operation seemed successful," Sasson said. "There was a big hole between the two arteries coming out from the aorta and the pulmonary artery."

Following the surgery, a team worked on Niyaz for days until they could analyze the full extent of the procedure.

"What we saw on the echo following surgery, although she came late, the results were amazing," Dr. Raucher-Sternfeld said.

When Distrust Turns to Love

Care provided throughout the ordeal made a huge impact on Niyaz's mother. For many beneficiaries, it's like a Middle East peace plan.

"We experience fear, hesitation, distrust, even of the Israeli doctors - sometimes of us," Miles revealed.

"What is really a blessing is seeing that distrust turn to love, seeing the fear turn to confidence, and seeing these kids' lives saved and also seeing their parents and their families, their viewpoints radically for the good," he said.

"Knowing that nobody else would do it and the patient will die if we will not be doing the surgeries and to see the patient recovering, it's beyond any description," Sasson said.

Niyaz survived her surgery and headed back to Syria with a new heart.

"I'm very happy; I'm very glad," her mother said. "I thank all the Jewish doctors that treated her daughter and I got a good treatment from all the staff here, and also Shavet Achim who brought us here to the hospital."

A Brighter Future

Niyaz goes home with a scar that will serve as a reminder of a much brighter future.

"She will have a normal life," Dr. Raucher-Sternfeld said. "She can do sports. If her genetics is then, she can go to the Olympics. She can get married and have children. She can go to university first. She can become a doctor - whatever the prognosis of a normal child."

What would have happened if she didn't have the surgery? She would have died - not in adolescence or as an adult, but in infancy.

"We took a child with no prognosis and we turned her into a healthy child," Raucher-Sternfeld said. "(It) extremely makes us happy."

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