As we prepare to retell the story of our redemption from slavery, I’m visiting with a refugee named Lina Mansur.
Lina, her husband and their three children managed to flee the town of Qaraqosh, the so-called Christian capital of Iraq, last summer. They are members of the old Chaldean Christian community living around Mosul, and the forces of Islamic State cut a swath across their country.
The would-be Islamic State caliphate is, of course, infamous for its beheadings, for chopping off the hands of accused child thieves and executing women for alleged adultery; eight year old girls are married off to fighters. And these are punishments for Muslims, not infidel Christians – who are forced to convert or die.
Imagine waking up in the morning knowing Islamic State is heading your way.
Tens of thousands of Christians fled.
Pope Francis protested. A humanitarian disaster was declared. US Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power condemned the attacks.
And the Mansurs fled, leaving behind their home and their life savings, in a bank account that may soon be worthless.
Now add to their journey their worries over their very sick child.
Maryam, their youngest – a roundfaced, dark-eyed girl, pretty like her mom – was born with a hole in her heart. It was diagnosed when she was a month old. Surgery would have to be swift, they were advised; the nearest specialists were in Turkey.
But then came Islamic State, and the Mansurs were refugees, depending on the kindness of strangers. They no longer had the cash to pay their way.
What were the chances that the winsome Maryam, this child on the run, would survive? Her lungs were already compromised.
They took refuge in the Kurdish stronghold of Erbil; later, they found shelter in a nearby small town. Among the aid services that came the way of Islamic State refugees were American physicians.
They shook their heads: It was already hard for Maryam to breathe, she needed surgery. Yet there was no solution nearby.
Then, representatives of a Jerusalem- based Christian organization called Shevet Achim turned up in Erbil and offered to bring Maryam to Jerusalem.
Shevet Achim, which draws it name from Psalm 133, “How goodly it is for brothers to dwell together in peace,” runs a no-frills communal hostel in an old stone building on Hanevi’im Street in downtown Jerusalem. The volunteers pray and study in the morning, and shuttle the sick children from the Palestinian Authority and neighboring countries to Israeli medical centers.
The group’s founder, Jonathan Miles, offered to take Lina and Maryam to Jerusalem for care.
Lina would have to leave the rest of the family behind. She’d never traveled abroad.
Lina didn’t know much about Israel.
She certainly hadn’t heard anything good about Israel living in Iraq; she’d never met a Jew. But Miles told her that medical care was advanced there, and that the group would cover the costs.
In the end, she realized it was her daughter’s only chance. They flew to Amman and then came over the Allenby Bridge to the capital of the Jewish state.
The initial prognosis was not good.
Too much time had elapsed, and Maryam had pulmonary hypertension.
But then Western medicine kicked in.
Maryam was strong enough to sustain surgery.
“A hole in the heart” was the least of it. Maryam’s complex condition included a heart tipped to the wrong side, undivided heart chambers and additional challenges. Cardiovascular surgeon Eldad Erez said he rarely sees more than one case this complicated a year in Israel, and maybe two or three in the large regional center where he trained and did thousands of operations in Texas.
Maryam was also old for the surgery, at 18 months old.
But last week, Dr. Erez and his team labored eight hours in the operating theater fixing her heart. During the operation, they discovered fused coronary arteries that needed to be separated.
Lina sleeps in a room attached to the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit. A stream of visitors from Shevet Achim and from the hospital staff come to visit her. Lina had no idea so many persons spoke Arabic in Israel. Doctors, nurses and custodial staff sit with her; a hospital clown comes to cheer her up.
And then there are the mothers of the other patients, her roommates and new friends in this sorority of hope and prayer for the healing of these children.
On the PICU roster, four of the eight beds are today occupied by babies from Arabic-speaking families, including from Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Truth be told, I might not have noticed it – this is business as usual at Hadassah University Medical Center and other Israeli hospitals – but among the visitors today is a famous American photographer who was inspired to take these pictures in response to the latest UN accusations against Israel.
This latest report faults Israel for oppression of women; Israel is the only country so singled out by the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
According to the report, Palestinian women under Israeli rule in particular are held back from empowerment in their patriarchal society, because of Israel.
The vote wasn’t close. Twenty-seven member states voted for it, two against and 13 abstained. The Middle Eastern countries not faulted include Iraq, where a husband who murders his wife serves a maximum of three years; Morocco, where 44 percent of women aged 15 to 49 are illiterate; Egypt, where 91% of women undergo sexual mutilation; and Sudan, where a man can marry a 10-year-old.
The photographer takes shots of working women – Jews and Arabs – doctors, nurses and technicians; and of moms, aunts and grandmothers sitting by the bedside of their babies in the intensive care unit. She takes photos of Lina and Maryam, too. They’ll want them when Maryam gets better.
The clown promises Lina she will come back tomorrow, when Maryam will be well enough to be cheered by her. She wants to hear Maryam laugh.
Lena notes. “You have given my child a future. God bless you.”
Barbara Sofer, the author of this story is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah. The views in her columns are her own.
This article appeared in The Jerusalem Post on April 2, 2105.
Read an article about Maryam in Israel Hayom http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=24479