Israel’s humanitarian spirit showed up in Azerbaijan at a time of need, providing proof of real friendship.
On Sept. 27, 2020, amid the COVID-19 pandemic, a war erupted between Azerbaijan and Armenia that lasted 44 days. The human cost was high. Wounded Azerbaijani soldiers with severe face and eye injuries urgently required surgical eye restoration and orbital reconstruction with ocular prostheses.
Dr. Messoud (Mesut) Ashina is a Danish-Azerbaijani neurologist whose heart is embedded in Azerbaijan. He is a volunteer member of the YAŞAT Foundation Board of Trustees, an Azerbaijani platform that supports disabled soldiers and families of the fallen. He also knows excellent physicians from Israel.
Facing a large number of wounded soldiers in need of treatment, Dr. Ashina reached out to Dr. Yishay Falick, an exceptional Israeli ophthalmologist and surgeon with experience in healthcare administration and work with government agencies.
Dr. Falick, then the CEO of Misgav Ladach Hospital in Jerusalem, took it upon himself to organize a humanitarian delegation to Baku, Azerbaijan that would provide medical assistance to veterans.
Due to the pandemic, air transportation was limited and borders were closed. There was a lack of corneas fit for transplant and regulatory problems made it difficult to get the needed medical specialists on board.
Despite this, Dr. Falick put together an exceptional delegation: Dr. Joav Vardizer, specialist in cataract and oculoplastic reconstructive surgery and corneal transplantation; Dr. Schmuel Levartowski, oculoplastic surgeon; Dr. Galina Sholohov, former head of the ophthalmology ward at Barzilai Hospital; Yoreh Barak, head doctor of the ophthalmology ward at Barzilai Hospital; Dr. Oved Daniel, head of the Retinal Department and clinical research at Rambam Hospital; and Ira Konon, specialist in the treatment of headaches and cervical spine pain, research department coordinator at Barzilai Medical Center and the administrative head of the delegation.
In the month prior to their arrival, while Dr. Falick was assembling the staff and the required medical equipment, Dr. Vardizer, the delegation’s oculoplastic reconstructive surgeon, handcrafted 400 eye prostheses for wounded soldiers based on photos of their faces taken before they were wounded.
In order to overcome the pandemic restrictions, the medical team was flown to Azerbaijan on a private jet.
The delegation’s work was assisted by Azerbaijan’s Minister of Health Dr. Teymur Musayev; Ulvi Mehdiyev, chairman of the ASAN Service Agency—a “one-stop shop” that brings together representatives of 10 government entities and private companies providing services in a public-private partnership—and Israel’s Ambassador to Azerbaijan Mr. George Deek.
From Feb. 27 to March 7, 2021, the Israeli team provided medical care and surgeries to over 150 Azerbaijani veterans. The team worked 12 to 15-hour days, sometimes using three operating rooms simultaneously. A total of 56 operations were performed.
One of the wounded soldiers was Arif Hajiyev, of the Muslim faith, whose eye was badly damaged in combat. Dr. Falick decided to treat Hajiyev with a triple cornea transplant procedure operation to restore his eyesight.
After the surgery’s success, Hajiyev was invited to visit Israel. He did so with the support of Ambassador Deek and Dr. Falick, who took it upon himself to reach out to the family whose loved one’s cornea was donated to Hajiyev. Also involved were the US-AZ Cultural Foundation (USAZCF), whose purpose is to promote relations between Azerbaijan and the United States, along with the State Committee for Diaspora Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan.
On Dec. 18, 2022, amidst the ongoing Hanukkah holiday, Hajiyev landed in Israel for a four-day visit. He met with and deeply thanked the wife of the late Kobie R., whose corneas had saved Hajiyev’s sight. Hajiyev also met with Moshe Fadlon, the mayor of Herzliya, where Kobie R.’s family resides, and was given the key to the city. Hajiyev reconnected with Dr. Falick and had his eye examined, met members of the government of Israel, prayed at the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, celebrated Hanukkah, did some sightseeing and thanked Israel for its humanitarian spirit.
USAZCF is now producing a documentary called “Through the Blink of an Eye” that will share Israel’s humanitarian spirit and its friendly relations with Azerbaijan with the entire world.
In fact, it is possible that the Israeli medical delegation’s success contributed to Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s recent decision to sign an order ensuring the establishment of an embassy in Tel Aviv, which will further strengthen the bond between Azerbaijan and Israel.
Someone can become a pioneer in their community because he or she never gives up on people. We can all learn by emulating the philanthropic engagement and communal involvement of the likes of Dr. Falick and his dedicated medical delegation to Azerbaijan.
Nurit Greenger was born in the British Mandate for Palestine in 1947 and now writes from southern California.