UAE entrepreneur offers free surgeries for children from conflict zones

In an exceptional cross-border cooperation, the surgeries were performed at public and private hospitals in Tunisia, Egypt, and India

by

Ashwani Kumar

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Published: Mon 8 Apr 2024, 12:04 PM

Last updated: Mon 8 Apr 2024, 4:24 PM

This Eid Al Fitr will be extra special for two-and-a-half-year-old Hamza Islam and his family. After a long battle with a complex cardiac condition, the Egyptian toddler can heave a sigh of relief. He has been successfully treated for a rare form of heart defect leading to difficulties in breathing and eating.

Little Hamza is among the 50 children to have a new lease of life through the ‘Golden Heart’ initiative by Abu Dhabi-based philanthropist and healthcare sector leader Dr Shamsheer Vayalil. The initiative, offering 50 free life-saving heart surgeries to children with complex congenital heart diseases from conflict zones and underprivileged families, was completed within months of its launch on January 1.


The initiative is a tribute by Dr Shamsheer Vayalil, the founder and chairman of Burjeel Holdings, to his father-in-law and billionaire businessman Yusuffali M.A. completing 50 years in the UAE.

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‘Couldn’t afford expenses’

In an exceptional cross-border cooperation, the surgeries were performed at public and private hospitals in Tunisia, Egypt, and India. Children aged two months and upwards from conflict zones such as Senegal, Libya, and Tunisia and underprivileged families from Egypt and India were the beneficiaries.

“Hamza struggled with a cardiac condition since his birth. He suffered from valvular stenosis. We went to several doctors without much luck until we met Dr Ahmed Afifi, who suggested surgery,” Hamza’s mother told Khaleej Times.

Though surgery was the need of the hour, the family couldn’t afford the expenses. It was then the initiative turned out to be a saviour in the hour of darkness.

“The surgery has been successful. We are grateful for this timely assistance,” Hamza’s mother said.

Dr Afifi is a consultant cardiac surgeon at Aswan Heart Centre under the Magdi Yacoub Heart Foundation in Egypt. Egyptian surgeon Sir Magdi Yacoub was among the Zayed Award for Human Fraternity 2024 winners.

“Hamza’s surgery required high precision due to the overstretched ventricle, necessitating complex surgical restoration of the mitral valve,” Dr Afifi said and noted that once ailing and underprivileged children in need of urgent surgeries can now lead a normal life.

“Unfortunately, Hamza’s family faced financial difficulties and could not afford the surgery. However, the initiative came to their aid, providing the necessary funds for the life-saving procedure. This cooperation has filled families with joy after they were unable to get the needed surgery either for financial reasons or being unable to secure a spot on waiting lists. All these children can lead a fruitful life now.”

Challenges in conflict zones

Navigating stringent travel restrictions posed challenges in bringing children from conflict zones to hospitals. Special travel permissions had to be obtained through various agencies to support these families. In India, the initiative collaborated with government departments to offer high-cost life-saving surgeries that are not covered under the existing welfare schemes.

Dr Tarig Ali Elhassan, a renowned cardiac surgeon who headed the medical assessment board of the initiative, said: “We received numerous requests from different parts of the world. We thoroughly reviewed each medical record and shortlisted the candidates based on the severity of their condition and the guidelines of the initiative. Later, we brought together global experts to perform the surgeries. We made arrangements to ease transportation challenges. Everything was done within three months, which we consider a great feat.”

Meanwhile, family members of eight-year-old Lyal from India are over the moon following a successful surgical outcome. Lyal was born with a ventricular septal defect – a hole in the wall that separates two chambers of the heart, besides other health problems. In the past seven years, the family knocked on many doors for financial help, but in vain.

“We applied after coming to know about the initiative. The surgery has been performed successfully. I thank the medical staff and this initiative. We highly appreciate this gesture,” a family member said.

Dr Shamsheer, married to Dr Shabeena – the eldest daughter of LuLu Group chairman Yusuffali, lauded the efforts of doctors and other staff in working to heal the little ones.

“It fills our heart to see these children taking baby steps into their healthier lives through the ‘Golden Heart’ initiative. Executing this mission was not an easy task. With utmost devotion, our doctors and other staff worked towards the healing of these little ones. We hope this tribute to Mr Yusuffali will inspire these little ones to dream big.”

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