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Saving hearts — one child at a time
Diplomatic Pouch / March 21, 2014

By Larry Luxner

Eliyas Mekonin Zewude, 15, has suffered from rheumatic heart disease for years. Originally from a small village, he ran away from home at the age of 8 to live with his aunt and attend school in Jimma, a city of 200,000 in southwestern Ethiopia.

But now, Eliyas — who dreams of becoming an engineer — can look forward to a normal life. On Mar. 8, the nonprofit group Save a Child’s Heart (SACH) raised $10,000 to cover the cost of lifesaving surgery for Eliyas. He’s one of 26 kids currently being treated by Israeli doctors at the Wilson Medical Center in Holon, a suburb of Tel Aviv.

“Tonight, we’re celebrating many years of bringing children to Israel for heart surgery,” said Michael Littenberg-Brown, chairman of SACH’s Young Leadership Group. He spoke to Diplomatic Pouch on the sidelines of a loud, joyous party at the Ethiopian Embassy in Washington that featured African music, costumed dancers, tables laden with traditional Ethiopian food and no less than 200 guests — each of whom paid $40 or more to be there.

In addition to admission tickets, SACH also raised funds by raffling an Ethiopian leather handbag from the ZAAF Collection, an original black-and-white print of the Obama inauguration by Neb Foto, and two round-trip economy tickets from Washington to Addis Ababa, courtesy of Ethiopian Airlines.

“On behalf of the Ethiopian government, I welcome you all,” said the embassy’s minister counselor, Wahide Belay. “We are very pleased to host this event, especially tonight with the announcement of an agreement between Save a Child’s Heart and Black Lion Hospital to perform heart surgery on 50 to 75 children in Israel over the next year. This partnership has already treated 300 Ethiopian children, so we are very thankful.”

Littenberg-Brown said his organization has funded heart surgeries for children from dozens of countries including China, Ethiopia, Kenya, Moldova, Nigeria, Russia, Ukraine and Peru — along with a handful of nations that are sworn enemies of Israel.

“About 40 percent of the kids we bring are from Africa, and we’ve been bringing children from Ethiopia for 20 years. That was the first country,” he explained. “Another 50 percent are from Israel’s neighbors — the West Bank, Jordan, Iraq and Syria. We work with partner organizations that are able to handle the entry of Syrian children to Israel. Our mission is to save kids wherever there’s a need who suffer from rheumatic or congenital heart disease.”

SACH was founded in 1995 by Dr. Amram Cohen, an American surgeon who had immigrated to Israel three years earlier. One day, an Ethiopian doctor contacted Cohen, asking for his help with two children who desperately needed heart surgery.

Since that humble beginning, SACH has repaired the hearts of some 3,300 children. The group oversees an annual budget of $4 million and 12 satellite offices from Switzerland to Vietnam. It recently won a $1 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to train Palestinian doctors in the West Bank.

“When we were in Ramallah last November, we met the Palestinian health minister, who spent 45 minutes telling us how much he appreciated the work we’re doing,” said SACH board member Jeff Hoffman.

“Half the children we treat are Palestinians, though we haven’t publicized it too much because there’s still a lot of sensitivity about Palestinian collaboration with Israel.”

In fact, Hoffman said, “even in the middle of wars, we’ve taken kids from Gaza. During the last flare-up, a rocket hit a car outside of Holon and damaged the hospital where a kid from Gaza was being treated.”

Sadly, Cohen did not live to see his organization flourish; he died in August 2001 while climbing Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. Yet the group has earned widespread respect in Israel, where rheumatic heart disease no longer exists thanks to medical advances and the widespread availability of penicillin.

“This is totally disconnected to anything the Israeli government is involved in,” said Littenberg-Brown. “We are nonpolitical and nonpartisan. What we do is irrespective of Israel’s relationship with other countries. Every child’s life is worth saving.”

He added: “Over the last 20 years, we’ve brought 200 children from Iraq to Israel and sent them home. They come into Israel through Jordan, and back to Iraq through Jordan,” he said. “They stay at our facilities typically for three months. If it’s complicated surgery, it could be longer.”

The humanitarian group says that of every dollar it receives in donations, 60 cents goes to surgery; 10 cents to lodging for children awaiting and recovering from surgery; 9 cents to medical training, 8 cents to administration, 8 cents to air travel and 5 cents to the young leadership program and public relations.

Hoffman said SACH has provided advanced training in Israel to three Ethiopian pediatric cardiologists, one cardiac-care physician and a surgeon from Jimma University.

“Ultimately, our goal is to build capacity in Ethiopia so that these kids don’t have to go out of their country for surgery,” said Hoffman, who’s also CEO of Danya International Inc., a health-care technology firm based in Silver Spring, Md. “Thousands of kids in Ethiopia who have rheumatic and congenital heart disease — and most of them don’t have adequate health services. So when kids get strep throat, if they don’t receive penicillin, it can go untreated and literally kill them.”

Noam Katz, minister of public diplomacy at the Israeli Embassy literally down the street from Ethiopia’s mission, was scheduled to speak at the Mar. 8 festivities. But an ongoing labor dispute between diplomatic staff and the Israeli government prevented Katz from attending.

Among the VIPs who did make it to the event: Belen Desalegn and Annabelle Reyes of Ethiopian Airlines; Sarah Orrick of eBay; Abai Schulze of the ZAAF Collection; David Litwack, U.S. executive director of SACH; Dara Iserson, chair of the SACH Young Leadership Gala, and Ori Reiss, CEO of GlobalNet Services Inc.

Anteneh Habte is chairman of the board of directors for People to People Inc., a Virginia-based diaspora nonprofit that works with medical institutions in Ethiopia.

“This is a very good occasion to elevate the consciousness of the Ethiopian diaspora in general, so that no matter what our differences are, we can all agree on the need to help our people,” said Habte, whose NGO counts more than 500 doctors nationwide as members. “We’re all bound to our country. Most of us came here after we got our education in Ethiopia, an education that was given to us free. So this is not just an exercise in volunteering, but giving back what we owe.”

For more information on SACH, visit www.saveachildsheart.org.

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