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Israel on the medical front lines
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Israel on the medical front lines

Head of Safed hospital on the high standard of care for Syrian patients

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Dr. Salman Zarka, flanked by honorees Drs. Stuart Geffner and Renee Frankel. Photo by Robert Schneider
Dr. Salman Zarka, flanked by honorees Drs. Stuart Geffner and Renee Frankel. Photo by Robert Schneider

A 6-year-old Syrian girl with a severe leg injury was brought to Ziv Medical Center, a hospital in Safed that offers humanitarian medical aid. According to international standards, in which the goal of humanitarian medical aid is to save lives, most facilities would have amputated the leg to save the girl’s life. 

“The patient would be hospitalized a few days and then be transported back to her country,” according to Dr. Salman Zarka, director-general of the hospital. But the standards in Israel go further, as they strive to improve the quality of people’s lives. “We do our best to save the leg.”

They did. The young patient underwent surgery, followed by three months of rehabilitation, all the while staying in Israel with her mother. By the time they went home, Zarka said, the girl was drawing Israeli flags. 

Zarka was keystone speaker at the New Jersey Israel Bonds health professionals dinner held Dec. 11 at the Crystal Plaza in Livingston. Ziv, a government hospital located 19 miles from the Syrian border, has treated 3,500 Syrians since the government launched this humanitarian program four years ago. Zarka is a firsthand witness to the impact of Israel’s medical treatment on Syrians — not only for individuals wounded in the country’s civil war, but also for those with chronic medical issues.

“One parent told me that when they pass the border, they look at our ears and they look [to see] if we have tails between our legs because for many years they were educated that we are the devil,” he told NJJN, about Syrian perceptions of Israelis. “And after we really save their lives, they came to realize that we are not the devil but more human than their own regime. I really believe these are small seeds for the future.”

Regarding some of the challenges the hospital faces with the program, he pointed out that patients often come with illnesses that were left untreated in Syria, where most of the medical institutions have been destroyed and medicine is often unavailable. Underscoring that these patients are citizens of a country that is a “sworn enemy” of Israel, he said that many Syrians are afraid to answer any questions or even give their real names to the staff, for fear that Israel “is looking for something else.” Sometimes children come alone, requiring a court order to be treated. And because they come without families to help them, he said, it can take patients longer to heal — up to one month, compared to two to five days for an Israeli, he said.  

Zarka takes pride in being the first person from a Druze background to head a hospital in the North of Israel, and in his community, for aligning with Israel when the state was formed. He said he has been embraced by Israel, and has never felt he was treated differently from his peers. He’s not even resentful that at the time of his appointment as head of Ziv Medical Center in 2014, the headlines focused on his ethnicity rather than his accomplishments over his 25-year career in the IDF, including serving as head of the medical corps of the Northern Command.  

“I really can understand the situation,” he said. “It’s really the first time a Druze physician becomes the head of a really important hospital in the north of Israel,” adding that he believes the second or third time something like that occurs, “we will not see these articles.”

His focus for the Israel Bond evening was on his hospital’s work on behalf of Syrians in need of medical expertise, and he summed up the experience this way: “They come with fear in their eyes to an enemy country,” he said. But by the time they leave, “we become their extended family and they become ours.”

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