In a war-weary corner of the world where life is a precious gift and death an all too familiar reality, the spring sunshine filling Avi and Sarit Naor’s fourthfloor apartment in Ramla, Israel, on May 20, 2013, lit up a scene refreshing for its sheer normality. As Avi read a newspaper in the lounge room of the run-down building, he could hear the squeals of his two youngest sons as they jumped on beds in the tiny room they shared with their older brother.
Then, suddenly, the cheerful cacophony was replaced by silence.
“Dad,” six-year-old Nevo shouted. “Noam’s fallen!” Thinking three-year-old Noam had tumbled off the bed, Avi put down his paper and hurried to the bedroom. Noam wasn’t there, but a gentle breeze flowing through the open window over the little boy’s bed hit Avi with the force of a tornado. His heart thumping, the 46-year old hospitality worker charged towards the opening and looked down. There, two floors below, Noam’s tiny body lay crumpled on a neighbour’s concrete balcony. “I knew it was serious, but I kept that inside, to myself,” says Avi now, sitting in the spotless lounge room of the apartment near Tel Aviv on Israel’s central coast.
Avi raced down the building’s narrow staircase to his neighbour’s place and pounded on the door, then frantically called an ambulance as he ran out to the balcony. Avi’s next call was “the most difficult I’ve ever made”. It was to his wife, Sarit.
Sarit, 36, had finished her shift as a cleaner and was returning home to take Noam to a play date. All Avi could manage to say was that there’d been an accident and Noam was unconscious. He couldn’t bring himself to describe what he actually saw – his youngest son, apparently lifeless, his skull shattered by the impact of the fall.
Avi sat by Noam’s broken body, holding his hand, while he waited for an ambulance to take them to Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Ramla. Sitting on a beige sofa opposite Avi, Sarit’s face is tense as she recalls the hours that followed Avi’s phone call. She says she turned her car around and headed towards the hospital, driving blind through her tears. She doesn’t remember getting there.
Four days later, after two major operations on Noam’s brain, doctors gave Avi and Sarit the worst possible news. “They said they couldn’t revive Noam, that he had a brain stem injury, and that, in fact, he was brain dead,” Sarit whispers in a strained voice, staring down at her entwined hands. “There was no hope.”
“They said they couldn’t revive Noam... There was no hope.”Sarit Naor
Sarit wants to describe her son. “Noam was always coming up to say, ‘I love you,’” she begins until, overcome with tears, she is forced to stop.
Israel is a small country, where a child falling from a window is national news. Fifty kilometres away, in the children’s ward at Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Medical Center, mothers watching over their own sick children saw the story about Noam Naor on the TV news. They talked about the accident and shared their hopes that the little boy would recover. Some of the mothers cried.
One of those mothers was Suhaila Ibhisad, a Palestinian woman from the village of Yatta, 8km south of Hebron in the West Bank. Wearing a long, dark coat and headscarf, she was at the Jerusalem hospital with her gravely ill 10-year-old son, Yakoub, who was undergoing dialysis for severe kidney problems.
Suhaila understood the agony of watching a child hover between life and death, but as she cried for a mother on the other side of the region’s religious divide, she had no way of knowing that in a gesture so powerful it drew praise from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, the death of the little Israeli boy on the TV screen would mean life for her own son, a Palestinian.
The gift that would lift spirits across the world began with a routine question. Before turning off Noam Naor’s life support, doctors asked his grieving parents if they would consider donating their son’s organs.
Having spent four days at Noam’s bedside, praying and begging God to help him recover, it was a question neither Avi nor Sarit saw coming. “To tell you the truth, I thought Noam would pull through,” admits Avi, shaking his head. “He was so lively, so full of life.”
Numb with grief that they’d be burying their beloved son, Sarit says they simply couldn’t take in what they were being asked. They turned to their religion for guidance. “I have an uncle who is an important rabbi,” explains Sarit. “We asked him [where Jewish law stands on organ donation] and he explained that we could do it, that Judaism encourages it in order to save life.”
But Sarit says it was still an agonising decision. “If I went only on feeling, then I’d obviously say no. But once I went on reason instead, I had to say yes because Noam wasn’t going to return any more and it was better to save a life.”
"Noam wasn’t going to return any more and it was better to save a life"Sarit Naor
Sarit’s cousin Pini Turgeman was by her side at the hospital. “Once Sarit had made her decision on religious grounds, she had no doubts,” she recounts. “She had tears streaming down her face, but her ‘yes’ was bold and clear. She was simply remarkable.”
Under the hospital’s rules, once donors or their families agree to a transplant they’re not allowed to specify a preference for any ethnic or religious groups. Nonetheless, doctors asked the Naor family if they minded one of Noam’s kidneys going to a Palestinian child (the other went to an Israeli child).
Sarit was adamant about that, too. Noam’s organs could be used to save the life of any child who needed them.
In the context of Israel and Palestine, it wasn’t an obvious response. People here have been enemies since the United Nations voted to divide up British Mandatory Palestine to create the state of Israel in 1948. Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were displaced, becoming refugees, and thousands more on both sides died in six wars that followed.
After the 1967 Six-Day War, in which Israel occupied the West Bank, there were riots, suicide bombings and military incursions. More people on both sides died, most of them civilians.
As the conflict rolls on, Israelis and Palestinians regard one another with suspicion at best – and outright hatred at worst.
But Sarit, who describes herself as a God-fearing woman, believes humanity is above politics. “I didn’t think Arab-Jew,” she reasons. “For me, everyone’s the same. It wasn’t the issue. Saving a life was what was important. And we did it with love.”
“I didn’t think Arab-Jew. It wasn’t the issue. Saving a life was what was important. And we did it with love.”Sarit Noar
Yakoub Ibhisad had been waiting a long time for a miracle. Born in Yatta in 2003, he and his twin sister, Sarah, were the fifth and sixth children in their family. The Ibhisads were poor, living in a small house supported by their father, Samir’s, work as a labourer in Israel. While the newborn girl was perfectly healthy, there were problems with Yakoub’s kidneys. One did not function at all and the other was undersized.
As Yakoub grew, his sole functioning kidney remained small and he failed to thrive. At four years old, he weighed only 11 kilograms. His mother could carry him in her arms like a baby. He was also getting sicker.
A major function of the kidneys is to clear toxins from the bloodstream, which we then pass as urine. Yakoub’s one undersized kidney was no longer doing that job. At four, he was not only tiny, but also bloated like a small Michelin man, his body filled with fluid that wasn’t being cleared. The pressure began to affect Yakoub’s other organs and he had difficulty breathing.
At the Aliya Hospital in nearby Hebron, doctors told Suhaila and Samir that their son would need dialysis, where patients are wired up to a machine that performs the function of their non-working kidneys. But there was a problem – the procedure wasn’t available in the West Bank, so they wrote a referral to an Israeli hospital.
The doctors in Hebron told Suhaila that Yakoub was unlikely to survive and that she was “not to struggle for him”. Suhaila, a determined, thoughtful woman, would have none of it. Back home, in the family’s dilapidated stone house, the 36-year-old housewife watched as Yakoub, barely alive, fought to take each painful breath. “How could I not struggle for him when he was struggling so hard for himself?” insists Suhaila today, doing needlework in her spartan lounge room.
When the time came to travel to Israel, Suhaila and Samir rose long before the sun, dressed their desperately ill little boy, and left the house at 4am to make it to the Israeli checkpoint when it opened at 5am. Once they crossed over to the Israeli side, they caught a taxi to Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem. Ninety minutes later, with Samir cradling their undersized, bloated child in his arms, they reached the hospital. Yakoub’s body was swollen and his hands and feet were blue. He was barely breathing as doctors rushed him to the intensive care unit.
Yakoub was unconscious as medical staff drained bottles of fluid from his body. The doctors told Suhaila and Samir they weren’t sure he’d survive. Suhaila sat by his bed, saying prayers, reading the Koran and crying. “I think I filled one of those bottles they were using just with my tears,” she remarks.
“I think I filled one of those bottles they were using just with my tears."Suhaila Ibhisad
Twenty-five days later, Yakoub’s eyes fluttered open and he smiled weakly at Suhaila when she squeezed his hand. The drainage and kidney dialysis had done their job. Suhaila was in tears again, but optimistic. “I said to myself that any child who could survive all that had life inside him.”
Hospital staff explained that until a replacement kidney could be found, Yakoub needed regular dialysis. For that he would need to come to Jerusalem at least three times a week – a difficult and expensive journey for a Palestinian family. The round trip would take a minimum of four hours and require two taxi rides. Sometimes money came from funds Suhaila had set aside to buy her other children’s schoolbooks; sometimes it came from their budget for food.
The family became very familiar with the route through the checkpoint, up to Jerusalem and back again because they would do the trip four times a week for the next seven years.
But while the dialysis was keeping Yakoub alive, he couldn’t do it forever. He needed a new kidney. In 2008, Suhaila and Samir were tested as potential donors, but neither was suitable as their own kidneys weren’t healthy enough to transplant. Later that year, Suhaila’s sister offered to be tested. But she wasn’t a match.
“After that, I stopped asking,” reveals Suhaila. “How could I ask relatives to give up a body part for my child when it was not something I could do myself?”
Five years later, in May 2013, the family received the news they’d been praying for – a kidney had become available. Suhaila knew it meant a child had died, so her joy was tempered with sorrow. When she learnt that the organ likely to save her son’s life was being donated by a grieving Israeli family, she was stunned. “That mother is a very special woman,” says Suhaila of Sarit Naor. “It is not everyone who could do what she did.”
The Naor family buried Noam on May 28, after which they observed the seven-day mourning period known as shiva, a Jewish tradition. During this time, they received a phone call from Israel’s president, Shimon Peres.
“To do something so humane, so generous and so difficult, to give life to another human being, is exceptional,” the president told Sarit. “According to Jewish tradition, every man was created in the image of God. Our sages say that ‘anyone who saves one life has saved the whole world’. You stood before two tests and you passed them with impossible bravery, after having gone through such an unjustified tragedy. You have filled our hearts with pride over the courage you possess, your motherhood and your Jewishness.”
President Peres said he was moved by the transplant for another reason, too. “It’s one of the most moving contributions to peace,” he said. “It shatters all prejudices.”
On May 29, while the Naor family was still sitting shiva for Noam, doctors at Schneider Children’s Medical Center in Petah Tikva, in central Israel, transplanted the infant’s kidney into Yakoub’s body in a four-hour operation. The organ started to function immediately.
It is a hot summer’s day, less than two weeks after the transplant, and Yakoub, in a brightly coloured ward at the hospital, is preparing for a special meeting: the Naor family are coming to see him.
Already Yakoub is a different child. As each day passes, he has more energy. This morning, he plays drums with the hospital’s music therapist. A nurse walking by urges him in Hebrew to bang harder, as hard as he can. The plump, curly-haired boy obliges.
As Yakoub’s mother looks on, her face more relaxed than it’s been in years, she admits she’s nervous about meeting Noam’s parents.
“I want to thank the family first, before the doctors,” she explains, “but still it will be hard for me to see this mother who has suffered so much. I want to see her, but I am always in tears when I think of her because I know it is much harder for her than for me. I pray that God will give her another child to help ease her pain.”
When Avi and Sarit arrive at the hospital two hours later, they are surrounded by local media. The Naor family, including the brothers, sisters and cousins who have come to support them, walk into Yakoub’s ward, flanked by doctors and TV cameras. Everyone is nervous.
Sarit hands Yakoub a gift, a box wrapped in shiny coloured paper with balloons attached, then stares at him, mesmerised.
“He is sweet, he is sweet, he is sweet,” she murmurs, bursting into tears.
She hugs Yakoub’s mother and the two fathers shake hands. Then Sarit sits on Yakoub’s bed and asks for a hug. The little boy throws his arms around her neck.
Sarit asks what he most wants to do and Yakoub replies in a voice still raspy from his illness, “I want to ride a bike!” She tells him she hopes he will now be able to do that.
“I wish you a great future, with lots of happiness and health, good health above all,” announces Sarit, and then hugs the little boy again.
“I feel as if some part of Noam is still alive,” says Sarit later, standing near Yakoub’s hospital bed, her face wet with tears. “Knowing I saved a life gives me great comfort and the power to go on. It was not an easy choice, but today I am happy I made it. It was never an issue that he was a Palestinian boy.
“I wish it would bring us peace,” she adds. “I believe it will bring us peace.”