Rotary Clubs do a lot more than weekly lunches:
Iraqi visitors “heart” New York
December 17, 2005
Sivar Mohammed’s formal attire, a gray suit and tie, couldn’t belie his cuteness — a teddy bear in his arms and a smile missing one front tooth on his small face.
Mohammed, all of 6 years old, was one of four Iraqi children who arrived in New York City Friday night, recipients of a chance to save their lives from heart defects.
Smiling and clutching stuffed toys, the children’s initial impression of Americans after landing at Kennedy Airport on a Royal Jordanian jet were of reporters and photographers capturing their shy faces with cameras.
Thanks to the Rotary Club’s Gift of Life International program, they will undergo open-heart surgery in the coming weeks.
In addition to having slim chances of surviving to adulthood, the children, ranging in age from 6 to 14, endured a 17-month effort to leave Iraq — and a perilous last-minute race on a dangerous airport road to cross over to Amman, Jordan, before the borders were closed for the Iraqi elections.
The children’s parents crossed the border into Jordan three times just to obtain visas for the trip here, said U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Marikay Satryano, who accompanied the children and their fathers on the flight.
“These are the bravest people I know,” she said.
Satryano started the process about six months ago from Amman, where she was stationed, when she learned of the plight of children who need heart surgery in Iraq where there are few adequate facilities.
Wsim Rabea, 11, who required immediate treatment, was rushed by ambulance to the Montefiore Medical Center in the Bronx, where the surgery will be performed by Dr. Samuel Weinstein, a cardiac surgeon volunteering his time. The boy emerged from customs sitting up and smiling on top of a stretcher.
Ashjan Khaled, 12, was taken to the Ronald McDonald House in New Hyde Park, a temporary home for ill children and their families.
Asaid Sibreai, 14, along with Sivar, will stay with host families in New Jersey.
The children, all born with heart defects that usually make breathing difficult, were chosen from 20 children who were taken to Amman for screening, said Robert Donno, president and founder of the Great Neck-based Gift of Life International.
“The heart-breaking thing is that we had to screen out so many children who need help,” Donno said. “We know there are at least 1,500 children in Iraq in need of heart surgery.”
The Gift of Life program, which brings children from developing countries that lack cardiac surgery facilities, was started about 30 years ago when Donno, then president of the Manhasset Rotary Club, brought a 5-year-old girl from Uganda for heart surgery in St. Francis Hospital in Roslyn. It has since grown into a worldwide program that has saved more than 6,000 children.
“Children are a common denominator. They break down all barriers,” Donno said. “I believe if we follow the needs of children, they will lead us to peace.”