Throughout the Syrian Civil War, strict boundaries have been drawn; on country borders, religious differences, and between enemies on both sides. Yet for Dr. Salman Zarka, an Israeli citizen who cares for victims of the Syrian civil war, there is no such thing as enemy lines when it comes to those in need. Zarka is the Director of the Ziv Medical Center in Zefat, Northern Israel, on the border with Syria. He joined Jim Braude and Margery Eagan on Boston Public Radio to discuss his work within the medical center, and the role of the hospital in the ongoing conflict.

MARGERY: What is going on in this hospital?

It’s very important to tell people that something good is happening in Northern Israel, between two enemies, between Syria and Israel. Our medical staff at Ziv Medical Center provides humanitarian aid, save lives and provide medical support to the people of Syria, that unfortunately remain untreated.
JIM: You’re right on the border, correct?

Yes. Last year we used to be in the medical core of the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces), so if I get close to the border, I meet Syrians at the border, and I feel very lucky that I have the opportunity to help them.

JIM: Israel and Syria are at war. When you say the hospital helps Syrians, you’re not just talking about innocent civilians, you’re talking about combatants as well—people who are sworn enemies of your country?

Of course. In an Israeli state of mind, thinking about Syria, you must remember the Yom Kippur [War], a bloody war with thousands of casualties. You think about Syria, you think about your sworn enemy… but as a physician, when you think about wounded [people], it doesn’t matter if [they are] Syrian or Israeli, you have sworn to provide medical support to save lives, and really this is where we are doing business.

MARGERY: There’s a quote in a story about the hospital, a trauma nurse realizes she is taking care of a Syrian and she says Syria is “the head of the devil.” I’m reminded of the Marathon bombing here, and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was being treated at Beth Israel Hospital. The nurses and doctors treated him… but there was a weird feeling about it. How did this begin? How did the first patients wind up at your hospital?

It started abruptly in the middle of February 2013. It was Saturday morning, and seven Syrian casualties got too close to our border. Our soldiers that guarded our border felt uncomfortable, because they usually need to fire to stop intrusion from the enemy country, but they felt there was something different. Instead of firing, they called the military physician to the area with three paramedics who treated the wounded and evacuated all of them to the Ziv Medical Center.

MARGERY: Was there any bureaucracy? Did they have to get permission before they came, or did they just come in and that was that?

I can remember a little bureaucracy. The physician said it was an emergency situation, and we needed to save those wounded lives. After they were evacuated to the hospital, we started asking questions about the next wave.

JIM: Is there resistance on the ends of the doctor-patient relationship? Some of your health care professionals feel like this is the enemy—and they’ve got to get over that psychological barrier. The patient also has to trust the person who is providing healthcare, and if I were a Syrian coming to your hospital, I’d be a little concerned. How do you bridge that gap?

In order to treat somebody, you need to have a trusting relationship between the physician and the wounded. When we ask [questions] in order to understand the mechanism of the injury, we can rely on which treatment, it’s a consideration we think about. They’re very often more silent, they speak less. I can remember one occasion when a Syrian officer who used to be in the Assad regime asked to speak with me, he said he was afraid to come to Israel, but now he didn’t find a tail between our legs—we are not that different. We are all humans, like their people.

To hear more of Dr. Salman Zarka’s interview with Boston Public Radio, click on the audio link above.