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Benji Aziza (and Rabbi Yosef Benarroch) with Lake Kinneret in the background

Benji Aziza in the North

Israeli wind turbines on the Golan 5 km south of Qunaitra.
Photo by Rhonda Spivak

The Golan with Mount Hermon in the background
Photo by Rhonda Spivak


by Benji Aziza, September 22, 2014










People say that the time before we enter the New Year is the best time to reflect on the year past.




Exactly one year ago, I was living in Israel serving as a medic in the Israeli Defense Forces.




When I was in the army, the High Holidays and especially Rosh Hashanah were always difficult for me because I was living far from my family who had moved from Israel back to Canada. Being a lone soldier during those times always came with mixed emotions.  Even though I was not with my immediate family, I was invited by many people to come and spend the holidays with them; relatives, friends or even strangers.  I never spent a single chag alone.





However, last year’s Rosh Hashanah had a life altering effect on me.





After being in the IDF for two and half years I was under the impression that the “action” part of my service was essentially over. I had participated in Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 which was a life changing experience in itself, but nothing compared to the 48 hours I experienced just before Rosh Hashanah 5774.




After receiving many invitations by phone and text message for the holidays, I overheard one of my commanders talking about an IDF mission taking place in the northern most part of the Golan Heights where Israel borders Syria. The operation was part of a humanitarian effort and its main goal was to treat injured civilians affected by the civil war in Syria.  The war at that point in time had already seen close to 100,000 deaths, countless injuries and had displaced millions of Syrians from their homes.




As that Rosh Hashanah was going to be my last High Holiday serving as a soldier, I decided that being a part of the medical team sent to the border would be the opportunity of a life time. No matter how much I wanted to be in Jerusalem with relatives and friends, I wanted nothing more than to have this experience.





I approached the commanders in charge of the field hospital and, as I learned in Israel, I was very assertive in convincing them how much I wanted to be part of the operation.  After some persuasion I was placed on a team along with a doctor, nurse, paramedic and a translator.  Late at night three days before Rosh Hashanah I received a phone call from the team leader telling me  that I was to meet at Tel Hashomer  (The Medical Corps Headquarters in Ramat Gan) at 8 o’clock the next morning. I couldn’t sleep that night.  After meeting the team we made the six hour bus journey to the base where a makeshift field hospital was set up about 100 meters away from the Syrian border.





Almost immediately after our arrival we received notification that a group of Syrian civilians were making their way to the field hospital. As the lowest ranking medical practitioner on the team my job was pretty simple. I had to do whatever anyone told me to do whether it was checking a patient’s blood pressure and temperature, preparing a patient for an operation or just bringing them food.  Whatever the task was I was happy to assist in any way that I could.





I could go on and on about the injuries that I saw during those days that ranged from light to, in some cases, very severe. There were many stories that I could tell about the people I met but one patient affected me more than any other.  I think of this patient every day since I met her one year ago.





Amongst the fifteen or so patients that had arrived at the base on the very first day, was a girl in a wheelchair who was accompanied by her mother.  I was asked to assist her.  The young girl was a patient that had been sent from Zvi Hospital in Tzfat to our make- shift hospital. She had already undergone surgery for a broken leg and her other leg had been amputated and fitted with a prosthetic.   As she had been treated at Zvi Hospital, my job was to prepare her and her mother for their journey back to Syria. I prepped her from an intelligence standpoint making sure that she never told anyone where she had been.  This was for her own good as there was no doubt that Assad's forces would not take kindly to knowing that Syrians were being treated by Jews in Israel.



I took it upon myself, with the help of the translator to ask the girl’s mother if she would be comfortable sharing her story with me.


The story was long but the short version was that a Syrian tank had bulldozed through the village where the family lived firing shells in all directions. One of the shells hit their house and had severely injured the young girl. One leg was blown off and the other broken. With the help of other Syrians, they were able to make their way to the Israeli border and cross. She was immediately admitted to a hospital in Tzfat where she underwent nine consecutive and painful surgeries.




After about three months of rehabilitation at the Hospital, they were finally ready to make their way back to their village in Syria. During the time they were in Israel they had no contact with relatives or friends back home and did not know if anyone in their family had even survived the attack on their village.


I spent approximately 16 hours with this girl and her mother and when it was time to say good bye to the group returning to Syria, my 15 year old patient, who until then had not said a single word to me during the whole time I tended to her, turned to me, and with a smile whispered, “Shukran” (thank you in Arabic). With my basic knowledge of Arabic I was able to answer “Afwan” (you’re welcome) returning a smile.




As I watched the jeep drive away I had a million thoughts going through my mind. Would this girl survive? Would she find her other family members? Would she be able to live a normal life again after what she had gone through?






Now a full year after our meeting there hasn’t been a day that has gone by when I haven’t thought of that young patient. I was always told I was very privileged in life and although I always knew it I never really knew just how privileged I was until I met that 15 year old Syrian refugee face-to-face.




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Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

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