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Dying 4-year-old girl finds life-savers in land of the enemy

Courtesy Save a Child's Heart

A Syrian woman sits at the bedside of her four-year-old daughter in the children's ward at the Wolfson hospital, south of Tel Aviv. The girl was brought to Israel for life-saving treatment with help from the non-profit group Save a Child's Heart.

The young girl was dying when she arrived in the land of her country’s enemy.

A heart condition had left the 4-year-old Syrian struggling to walk or even talk.

But in Israel – a country still in a state of cease-fire with Syria after the Yom Kippur War four decades ago -- she found her saviors.

Admitted earlier this month to the Wolfson Medical Center, south of Tel Aviv, she underwent life-saving surgery.

The girl is now recuperating on a ward along with children from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Sudan, Romania, China and Israel.

"She would have definitely died if she wouldn’t have arrived here," Ilan Cohen, one of the doctors who treated her, said.

"A lot of patients arrive here from enemy countries and view Israelis as demons. They are surprised that we are human without horns on our heads," he added. "This is the first time they see Israelis without a uniform and I think it's a good surprise.”

Her treatment was the work of “Save a Child's Heart,” an Israeli nonprofit organization started by the late Ami Cohen, who moved to Israel from the United States in 1992.

He joined the staff of the Wolfson with a vision to mending children's hearts from around the world. The organization he began has since helped treat 3,200 children from 45 countries.

Save a Child's Heart also trains doctors from around the world so they can go back and treat patients locally.

"We have limited capacity and we can't treat the millions who need our help," Ilan Cohen said. "This is our most important task.”

Jim Hollander / EPA, file

Intensive care unit doctors Rahel Sion Sarid, right, and Eldar Schneider, wheel a Save a Child's Heart patient from surgery at the Wolfson Hospital, south of Tel Aviv, Israel.

Refugees in their own country – wracked by a brutal civil war between President Bashar Assad’s regime and opposition rebels for more than two years – the mother's and daughter’s journey to safety was a long and dangerous one.

They made their way to Israel through a third country, the name of which has not been made known for security reasons.

The child and her mother are also not being named because of a potentially hostile reaction should they eventually return home.

"It's just too dangerous," said Fatma Sarsour, Arabic translator for Save a Child's Heart.

"At some point, both daughter and mother will go back to Syria and they want to keep this trip a secret,” she said.

As recently as Tuesday, Syrian and Israeli troops exchanged fire on the cease-fire line on the Golan Heights. Israel has also sent its warplanes to bomb targets in Syria to prevent weapons getting through to Assad-allied Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

Sansour said that when the girl arrived in Israel she was clearly “very sick.”

“It was hard for her walk or talk,” she said.

She was found to have only one functional ventricle – a type of chamber -- in her heart instead of the normal two.

In mid-May, she underwent a three-hour operation and she is now back on her feet and walking the hospital halls.

Her middle-aged mother appeared uncomfortable with media attention because of the perils of being identified and declined to comment.

But the girl is back to being a cute 4-year-old with a shy smile, despite the stitches on her chest.

She has been making friends with other children of various nationalities on the ward.

Alona Raucher-Shternfeld, a pediatric cardiologist with Save a Child's Heart who also helped treat the child, hopes this example of harmony between different nationalities and creeds can help inspire the wider world to better relations.

"We all hope that the co-existence that we created here in the clinic is a sign to what really can be achieved in the future.”