As the civil war in Syria enters its seventh year, the level of barbarity and sheer inhumanity on display plumbs new lows — the use of chemical weapons, air strikes against hospitals, so-called double-tap barrel bombings. Syria is now the deadliest conflict of the 21st century, and alarmingly it still appears to be far from resolution.
Damascus is nearer to Jerusalem than Canberra is to Sydney, but in the relative peace and security of Israel the civil war in Syria can feel like a world away. And the desire to help when faced with such a large-scale humanitarian tragedy can feel deeply inadequate.
But in the town of Safed, in the upper Galilee region of Israel’s north, the conflict in Syria feels very close. At Ziv Medical Centre, which I visited for the fourth time this week, they are treating a steady stream of civilians – maimed, wounded and otherwise injured — from the conflict in Syria. Person by person, life by life, limb by limb, they are providing a small ray of hope amongst all the despair.
When I first visited Ziv Medical Centre, in August 2013, they had treated seventy-two patients from the Syrian civil war. It was two months after I had arrived in Israel, and a tiny item in the sidebar of a newspaper had piqued my interest. How was it that people from Syria were receiving medical treatment in Israel, when the two countries were still formally in a state of conflict? How did the Syrians even reach Israel? Who paid for all this? How did they communicate with hospital staff? Were they welcomed? Were they frightened? I was intrigued, and decided to visit to find out the answers.
On my visit to Ziv Medical Centre this week, the total number of Syrians treated by the hospital stood at over one thousand. Amongst the patients I visited was a five-month-old boy suffering from seizures — the doctors suspected epilepsy. There was an 8-year-old girl suffering from a congenital heart defect that left her short of breath and lethargic — heart surgery would probably be required. There was a 26-year-old man whose face had suffered a significant shrapnel injury — surgeons had managed to save his left eye and restore his eyesight. Each of them was a modern-day miracle of medicine. Each of them a life potentially saved or repaired.
Two observable trends became apparent as I talked to the hospital staff, visited the patients, and spoke to their families. Ziv continues to treat Syrian patients who have suffered conflict-related injuries, from shrapnel and collapsed buildings and the like. But increasingly the Syrians presenting are suffering chronic or underlying conditions, rather than conflict-related injuries — presumably because even the basic health infrastructure inside parts of Syria has collapsed.
The second trend was a noticeable increase in the level of ease of the Syrian patients and their families about seeking treatment in Israel. When I first visited in 2013, the patients were anxious, shy and reluctant to speak with visitors. Visiting this time, there was much less nervousness — the patients were talkative and more willing to share their stories. Over time, and as more patients have returned to Syria with the stories of how they are treated inside Israel, the sense of ignorance and fear about Israel is dissipating.
Ziv Medical Centre remains a picture of multicultural Israel at its best, with hospital staff drawn from the Jewish, Arab and Druze communities. Arabic-speaking doctors, nurses and social workers speak to the Syrian patients in their native tongue and help put them at ease, bringing the children toys, and the accompanying mothers local foods. The best level of medical care is provided to everyone, without questions of nationality or religion coming into it, and compassion and understanding is extended to all equally.
Ziv is a microcosm of how different peoples can get along and thrive if they focus on their common humanity, rather than what makes them different. Of course, in the context of all the suffering inside Syria, the contribution Ziv Medical Centre makes to ease this suffering is a modest one.
But with all the tales of human misery that emerge from Syria, a country now torn asunder by unspeakable violence, intolerance and sectarianism, these little rays of hope are worth highlighting and cherishing.