US could learn lesson in compassion along Israel’s Syrian border

Looking into Syria from the Golan Heights.

Looking into Syria from the Golan Heights.

“Daddy, pick me up.”

That was the cry of a nine-year-old boy, Abdel Bassett Al-Satuf, who had both legs blown off below the knees on Feb. 16 during a barrel bomb attack in northern Syria.

I saw the video of the bloodied little boy, his father raising his hand to the sky begging to God, earlier this week, and I had to fight back tears.

My son is 11. Not so much older, not so much bigger than Abdel. I’ve heard him cry out for “Da-da.” For anyone with children, you’ve likely heard it too, maybe after a bike wreck or a bad dream. But nothing so horrible as this.

It’s impossible not to feel empathy for the boy and his father, to imagine if our places were reversed.

On the day he was injured and his mother, sister and other members of his family were killed, I was on the northern border of Israel visiting the Ziv Medical Center.

Located about 22 miles from the Syrian border in the town of Safed, doctors and nurses at Ziv have been treating Syrians caught in that country’s brutal civil war since 2013.

The patients include fighters, injured in the civil war, as well as men, women and children. Some of them wounded in the fighting, others who have been cut off from medical care, they are all casualties of the brutal war that began in 2011 and has claimed an estimated 400,000 lives.

On the day I was there, I met a Syrian teenager and his mother, who had made the dangerous decision to cross the Israeli border for medical help. The young man couldn’t receive the care he needed in Syria and his family was desperate.

No pictures were allowed of the family or the staff at Ziv. There was a clear military security presence, for good reason.

Syria — what’s left of it anyway — remains at war with Israel, with no treaty ever signed after the end of fighting from the Six Day War in 1967. For a Syrian to seek assistance or be in any way affiliated with Israel would mean a likely death sentence.

Syrians are taught to hate Israelis and to fear them. But they still come.

According to published reports and discussion on the ground, more than 2,500 Syrians have been treated in Israeli hospitals, many stopping first at Ziv. The numbers continue to grow as the fighting continues.

The decision to treat wounded and sick Syrians is not without risks, and no amount of security is foolproof. In one example, a stun grenade was found in the pocket of an unconscious man who was brought to the hospital suffering from a gunshot wound. The hospital was temporarily evacuated until the explosive could be disarmed.

But they’ve never stopped. In fact, working with the international community, the hospital is part of a program that hopes to eventually provide medical care for about 1.5 million people living in Southern Syria. (That’s the pre-war number. It’s hard to know just how many people remain today.)

Abdel, the boy above, made it to Turkey where he was able to receive medical care and is now in stable condition.

The horrific images join others — a boy in shock, the body of a refugee toddler washed up on the beach, drowned — that remind us of the calamity in Syria.

I was in Safed as part of a trip sponsored by the American Israel Education Foundation, and there’s no question that the visit to Ziv Medical Center was on the schedule to show the best of the country.

And while the doctors, nurses and staff who treat the wounded and the ill are unquestionable heroes, providing health care to Syrians is also good strategically for Israel. It’s a chance to break down animosity and to create friends, one sick boy or injured man at a time, and to build international goodwill and cooperation.

Right now, the United States — protected by oceans and the most sophisticated military and security apparatus ever to exist — is afraid to provide sanctuary to children battered by a civil war.

We are turning our back on refugees and attacking immigrants for their religion or country of origin. Under President Donald Trump, our actions are illegal and without justification. And they are immoral.

If the Israelis, under constant threat and living just miles from the Islamic State, from Hezbollah, from Al-Qaida and an alphabet soup of other militant groups — who all hate them — can show the compassion to care for people in need, can we not do more?

We cannot be a country that is ruled by fear. It’s time that we rise to our obligation to welcome the tired, the poor and the huddled masses and to remember the Sermon on the Mount for blessed are the merciful.

I’ll be posting a series of reflections on my trip to Israel here over the next few days.

David Farmer

About David Farmer

David Farmer is a political and media consultant in Portland, where he lives with his wife and two children. He was senior adviser to Democrat Mike Michaud’s campaign for governor and a longtime journalist. You can reach him at