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Syrian earthquake victims surprised to be treated by Israelis

By Pesach Benson

JERUSALEM — The Israeli IDF medical team treating Turkish earthquake victims in Kahramanmaras are also treating Syrians. Of the millions of Syrian refugees who were already in Turkey, thousands were living in UN refugee camps in and around the southern Turkish city.

Israeli medical workers treat a boy in Turkey’s Kahramanmaras Necip Fazil City Hospital in Kahramanmaras. (IDF Spokesperson)

The team treated around 470 victims, including 150 children, and performed 10 surgical and orthopedic operations.

Lt.-Col. Dr. Ofer Almog described his motivations and the reactions of some of the Syrians after learning they were treated by Israelis.

“We have been treating Syrians, people who were injured in the earthquake, and people who just needed care.

“We’re happy to, because we have the opportunity to help these unfortunates.”

The Turks lost their homes, but “the Syrians were refugees even before the earthquake,” Almog said. “We extend our hand to them.”

“In some cases, they were very emotional, very surprised that the Israelis weren’t who they were told we are,” Almog said.

“One person said that everything he was taught all of his life about Israel was a lie. This was the first time they were meeting Israelis, and we weren’t as bad as he thought.”

Almog, an anesthesiologist and senior officer in the medical team, said he arrived in Kahramanmaras on Feb. 8 as part of a team tasked with selecting a site for the Israeli Defense Force’s field hospital. In the end, it was decided that Israelis would work inside the Kahramanmaras Necip Fazil City Hospital.

The field hospital has the distinction of being the only one to receive the World Health Organization’s highest score possible, but it could not be set up.

“It’s easier when you have the infrastructure,” Almog explained. “The city is very crowded and it was difficult to find an open space” large enough for the field hospital.

Another reason for working in the hospital itself is that “most of the staff fled after the second earthquake. They only had an emergency department.”

As the hospital’s own staff gradually returns, the Israeli and Turkish medical personnel were learning to work together, which Almog said this wasn’t necessarily straightforward.

“Many don’t speak English, and it was hard to find enough translators,” Almog said.

The Foreign Minister sent some translators. The teams got more comfortable working together as “they acknowledged that we’re here to help and that we’re not here to replace them.”

“It’s natural for native medical teams to be suspicious of foreigners working in their hospital.”

On Feb. 12, Israel’s United Hatzalah volunteer emergency response organization ended its mission early, citing “concrete and immediate threat” to the delegation working in the city of Gaziantep.

Asked about threats to the Israelis in Kahramanmaras, Almog said:

“I can speak for my team of 150 personnel. We’re not afraid. We’re working with local teams and local people, and we’ll work here as long as we are able to.”

He noted that the team has security and intelligence, and “there is no need to change what we do.”
Almog’s delegation returned to Israel on Feb. 15.

It was welcomed at the Ben Ami military base by IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi.

“You went to a dangerous place, both in a seismological sense and security-wise,” he said. Despite initial security concerns, “this did not cause us to rethink.” The delegation was sent for “ethical reasons, to save lives.”

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