They had never met, but they were Facebook friends connected across thousands of miles. Together the two digital acquaintances — a young English teacher in Afghanistan and a retired State Department official living in Israel — collaborated to save a baby in Pakistan with life-threatening congenital heart problems.
Yehia, now 14 months old, had been born with his two main arteries reversed and two holes in his heart. His parents, Afghans living in Peshawar, Pakistan, found a local specialist who could perform the necessary surgery, but the price tag was $7,000. It might as well have been seven figures to the child’s father, who makes his living selling flour. The family’s savings, $200, had already been depleted.
On a trip to Afghanistan for a family wedding in April, they sought out a relative, Farhad Zaheer, a teacher in Jalalabad who speaks English and is active on social media. Could he help? “No problem,” Mr. Zaheer, 29, recalls telling them.
Among the people he contacted was Anna Mussman, 69, who has both U.S. and Israeli citizenship. Mr. Zaheer had sent Ms. Mussman a friend request in 2012 after he worked on a project training teachers in the province of Nouristan, which Ms. Mussman was overseeing for the State Department. He remembered Ms. Mussman, he said, because she commented kindly on his posts.
Ms. Mussman, who was born to Holocaust survivors in a displaced persons’ camp in Germany, jumped on receiving the message. Within a few hours she had contacted Simon Fisher, the executive director of Save A Child’s Heart, an Israeli charity that she had heard about once on CNN. The group provides free surgeries to children from developing countries. “I realise helping a child from a country which Israel has no diplomatic relations is not easy, but perhaps possible,” Ms. Mussman wrote to Mr. Fisher. “Thanks so much and Shabbat Shalom.”
It did not get any less complicated from there. Numerous other strangers and acquaintances helped plot a multi-country medical odyssey that culminated in an eight-hour surgery on July 30 at Wolfson Medical Center in Holon, Israel.
Yehia, whose father spoke on the condition that the family name not be published for fear of a backlash if it became known he had taken the boy to Israel for treatment, is the first Afghan treated by Save a Child’s Heart. It was Mr. Fisher who, pulling on years of contacts, obtained Israeli visas for Yehia and his father.
But they would have to travel through Turkey. Mr. Zaheer, the Jalalabad teacher, ever-confident, finagled his way into the Turkish Embassy in Kabul, where a sympathetic guard slipped him the e-mail address of a Turkish diplomat. Ms. Mussman, the former State Department official, had put Mr. Zaheer in touch with Fary Moini, an Iranian-American who had worked in Jalalabad and had connections there.
At Mr. Zaheer’s request, Ms. Moini wrote a moving letter to the diplomat, whom she did not know, pleading for visas for Yehia and his father, and within a day, Mr. Zaheer picked them up.
Once in Israel, Dr. Yahyu Mekonnen, 33, an Ethiopian surgeon, operated on Yehia. Dr. Lior Sasson, who headed the nearly dozen-person operating team, hummed an Israeli song while they stopped his tiny heart, to patch it up.