Healing Hearts

Dr. Ibrahim Abu Zahirah examines a baby with a congenital heart defect in his clinic in Hebron
Dr. Ibrahim Abu Zahirah examines a baby with a congenital heart defect in his clinic in Hebron

It was the babies that tugged at the heartstrings of Katya Chelli, a Parisian film editor.

Tiny Palestinian babies, newborns, many just under a year old, born with congenital heart defects, and little chance of making it in the West Bank and Gaza. Doomed, due to lack of proper medical care.

But in Israel, with the surgical expertise of Israeli doctors at Hadassah Medical Center and with the training they were giving their Palestinian colleagues on how to operate and do proper follow-up care, the sick babies had a chance.

A chance at survival. A chance at life.

In 2013, Chelli was sipping a mug of steaming tea on a cushioned chair in her Parisian apartment when she chanced upon an article in Le Monde about an organization called “A Heart for Peace”. It shared the little-known activity of Israeli and Palestinian doctors teaming up in the shadow of conflict, working together at Hadassah Medical Center at Ein Kerem on the outskirts of Jerusalem, to save lives. Palestinians were crossing checkpoints and the Separation Barrier with their sick babies and toddlers in tow en route to Hadassah to be operated on by Professor Jean-Jacques Azaria Rein, then Head of the Department of Pediatric Cardiology. For some Palestinians, it was their first time setting foot in Israel, and there was some trepidation. As Chelli continued reading, she learned that Prof. Rein was training Dr. Ibrahim Abu Zahirah of Hebron, so that he could do early screenings, diagnoses, follow-up care, and eventually have the skills to perform echocardiograms and/or catheterizations on these babies autonomously in the West Bank. Every year, 300 Palestinian babies are born with cardiac malformation in the West Bank and Gaza.

“This incredible collaboration between Israelis and Palestinians stunned me,” recalled Chelli, her voice welling up with emotion. “Saving the tiniest of babies—together!”

Dr.-Abu-Zahirah-speaks-to-the-parents-of-a-three-month-old-baby-who-was-about-to-have-open-heart-surgery. (Photo credit: Katya Chelli)

Hungering to know more, Katya reached out to Dr. Muriel Haim, a French Jewish physician who had founded the apolitical French organization, A Heart for Peace, in 2005, together with Prof. Rein. The organization was established to raise the funds to finance cardiac surgery for Palestinian children and to train Palestinian doctors to properly care for children in the West Bank. From afar, Chelli started volunteering for A Heart for Peace. She translated web materials into English and organized a benefit concert in 2017 to raise money for the organization. Hundreds of Palestinian babies and children had been operated on at Hadassah, at no cost to the families. Chelli was certain that this story had to be shared with the world. Someone has to make a film about this incredible teamwork, she muttered to herself. And to everyone else. In 2014, Chelli tried to find a producer and director who shared her passion for this project. It soon became apparent that she had to make the documentary herself.

Chelli is no stranger to film. Over the last thirty years, she has worked in film editing with celebrated directors such as Robert Altman, Costa-Gavras and Nikita Mikhalkov. Yet this will be her first time directing, and she has thrown herself into this project in toto. “In French you’d say, I’ve been ‘inhabited’ by the project. But for me, this isn’t a project. It’s a mission.”

Since 2014, Chelli has come to Jerusalem three times to conduct research. Last year, she shot footage for this film teaser. To meet Ibrahim, Jean-Jacques and Dr. Sagui Gavri, who is the current head of Pediatric Cardiology at Hadassah. To meet families and listen and get to know the entire medical team, and observe how life within the hospital unfolds. To watch catheter operations. To observe the follow-up care in Ibrahim’s clinic in Hebron in the West Bank. To connect with Palestinian families and relate their stories.

“At Hadassah, Israelis and Palestinians share the same room,” said Chelli. “They can’t help but see that they’re the same—human beings with similar fears about the survival of their children.”

In early December, Chelli will start shooting the film. She will be staying in Israel for some two months to follow a Palestinian family from the moment they receive their child’s diagnosis right through until post-operative consultations, capturing the actions carried out by the team in Hadassah and the vital importance of post-operative care for the children on the Palestinian side.

The expensive nature of this project spurred Chelli and her producer, Julien Tricard, to conduct a crowd-funding campaign to help defray the costs. This documentary project has received some support from French television station, Planète+, and the Moroccan channel 2M. Financing from the campaign will cover the shooting of the film and post-production, notably in order to subtitle in English, Arabic and Hebrew, to make it accessible in these languages.

It is vital to support projects of peace and hope like this one, said venerated Israeli author and peace activist Amos Oz.

“In contrast to documentaries that chronicle the despair and hopelessness in the realm of Israeli-Palestinian relations, this project shines the light on a lasting humanitarian enterprise, carried out jointly by idealistic and enthusiastic individuals, Israelis and Palestinians, devoted to saving children’s lives,” said Oz.

Amos Oz holds a logo designed for the “Healing Hearts” crowdfunding campaign.(Photo courtesy of Amos Oz. Logo created by YAK)

And it’s bound to be a worthwhile film, predicted famed Greek-French director Costa-Gavras. “I rarely give my unconditional support, but here I am doing so with confidence and enthusiasm. I am convinced that Katya will make a quality film.”

Costa-Gavras holding the logo created for the “Healing Hearts” crowdfunding campaign. (Photo courtesy of Costa-Gavras. Logo created by YAK)

There is urgency to complete this “Healing Hearts” documentary so that it can be screened at the Global Fund Replenishment Conference in June 2019 in Paris, which will be attended by the most important players in international aid.

“Medicine is clearly one of the rare fields in this troubled region where true cooperation exists,” said Chelli. “A special field within which to build bridges, because it transcends all barriers, be they cultural, linguistic or religious. This reality has to be talked about.”

A colleague stands with Professor Rein, Dr. Gavri and Dr. Abu Zahirah (photo courtesy of Katya Chelli)

It is perhaps no coincidence that the organ at stake is the heart. Chelli is asking you to open yours and support this most worthwhile project.

Peacemaking may feel elusive. But shining the light on four children waiting at this very moment for heart surgery—Muhammed, Jarah, Ala’a, and Ameer? Well, there’s nothing elusive at all about that.

About the Author
Ruth Ebenstein is an award-winning American-Israeli writer, historian, public speaker, and health/peace activist who loves to laugh a lot--and heartily. She is the author of the forthcoming book, Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered An Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide. She is also the author of "All of this country is called Jerusalem": a curricular guide about the contemporary rescue operations of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee and has written two teleplays for children, Follow that Goblin and Follow that Bunny. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Washington Post, Los Angeles Review of Books, Tablet, WomansDay.com, Good Housekeeping, Triquarterly, CNN.com, USA Today, the Forward, Stars and Stripes, Education Week, Brain, Child, Fathom, and other publications. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.
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