Building Bridges from the Heart

By Mariana Cristancho-Ahn

Families at Shevet Achim. Michelle Bradburn, second from the left (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

JERUSALEM – Um Parwa, the mother of six-year old Kurdish girl known as Parwa, was inconsolable. The mother, dressed in a tunic-style purple dress kept trying to contain herself by rubbing the tears from her eyes with both hands.

Mother and daughter had arrived in Israel in February for what the mother hoped would be life-saving heart surgery for Parwa’s heart. A month later, a delay in the procedure, as well as the separation anxiety from the rest of her children in northern Iraq, was making Um Parwa distressed. Next to her, two volunteers, Donna Taylor-West, 60, and Michelle Bradburn, 19, tried to comfort her. They reminded her that her sacrifice was the only hope to save her daughter’s life.

The opportunity to come to Israel for the surgery – and the support offered while waiting for the operation– was made possible by an organization called Shevet Achim, an Israeli-based Christian organization that helps bring children from Iraq and the Gaza Strip to Israeli hospitals for surgery.

Shevet Achim’s team of eight volunteers and three staff members make the necessary arrangements to bring the children and a parent and host them during the time of the treatment which could take from a couple of months to a year. The accompanying parent is usually the mother and she is so identified with her child that she inevitably becomes known as “um” or “mother of” her daughter rather than by her own name.

The surgeries are performed by Israeli doctors at the Wolfon Medical Center in Holon and at the Schneider Children Medical Center in Petach Tikvah, which hold down the costs to $5,000 to $7,000, a fraction of what they would otherwise cost. The funds are obtained through fundraising campaigns by the hospitals, Shevet Achim and NGOs.

According to the director, Jonathan Miles, 100 children have received heart surgeries and treatments since the organization was founded in 1994.

Taylor-West said that she was moved by the interfaith effort of Christians and Jews working together to save a Muslim life. “It gives me the opportunity to show them the love of Christ through strangers they always heard were their enemies,” she said.

By the middle of March 2010 four Kurdish and two Arab families – mother and child – were staying at Shevet Achim. In the cozy first floor living and dining room the families gather to eat and spend time together. Bradburn speaks some Kurdish and is able to hold basic conversations with them. She also helps translate. A seven-year-old boy named Barzan joined her in singing as the music of a Christian Kurdish song played in the background.

Up in the bedroom children were running amid the two rows of black metal-framed single size beds set side by side. Um Parwa had calmed down and was playing with her daughter. “Since I’ve been here God has given me a heart for the Kurdish people,” Bradburn said. She said she has witnessed amazing transformations.

“When they come here often times their fingers are blue and their lips are blue for having no oxygen,” said Bradburn. “And then you see them after the surgery, if all goes well, they are pink for the fist time, and they start playing.”

Located on Prophet Street, about 10 minutes away by car from Jerusalem’s Old City, Shevet Achim is based in the same historic building that once housed the first children’s hospital in Jerusalem. A plaque outside the stone-walled entrance states that this was the site of the Marienstift Children Hospital, which operated from 1872 to 1899.

Miles, 48, a former journalist and teacher from New York, founded Shevet Achim and moved it into the old hospital building. He took the name from the Hebrew words of Psalm 133, “Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity.”

“I though this passage spoke better about what we are really working at the end,” he said.

Miles, a Christian, has been involved in helping people in the region since 1991. By 1994 he started bringing children from Gaza to have heart surgeries at Israeli hospitals. He lived in the Gaza Strip with his family for five years. Now he lives in Amman where he makes the connections with Iraqi and Kurdish families to bring their children to Israel.

Taylor-West, Bradburn, Miles and other volunteers maintain blogs with updates of the children’s progress on Sheven Achim’s website. According to the blog about Barzan, he recovered and went back home to Iraq on March 26th. Parwa had a successful catheterization on April 7th and went back on April 16th. “I was surprised by the tears from both my coworkers and the traveling moms when it came time to say goodbye,” wrote Taylor-West in the Parwa’s blog under a picture that shows her, Um Parwa and Parwa smiling.

Bradburn says that she is motivated by her Christian faith to do what she does and, while not overtly trying to convert them to Christianity, she hopes the families could eventually get to experience the same understanding of God that she has.

“My greatest joy being here is to see them change physically and get healthier,” said Bradburn, “but most of all, to see them grow in hope, peace and knowledge that God is sovereign, and that he loves them.”

Um Parwa and her daughter (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

Um Barzan and her son (Mariana Cristancho-Ahn/Journey to Jerusalem)

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