The Dr. Sapir Hospital was the first charity hospital in Iran, and was established in 1942 after the typhus epidemic in the capital Tehran. (IranWire)

January 28, 2021

An old building sits in Mostafa Khomeini Street, near the Sirus crossroads. Outside, a large sign indicates a medical center is housed there. Several cars are parked in the yard and a guard and several men talk to each other, standing next to one of the cars.

Often in the past, the old building has attracted the attention of passers-by. But now, what attracts attention is its locked metal door.

This is Dr. Sapir Hospital and Charity Center. Residents of the Tehran neighborhoods of Sirus and Oudladjan have many memories of the hospital, known to be the oldest charity center in Iran.

Now, after almost 80 years, it is closed.

The Dr. Sapir Hospital in Oudladjan, one of Tehran’s most historic neighborhoods, was established in 1942 following the typhus epidemic in Tehran. It was the first charitable hospital in Iran, and when it was set up all of its services were free. The hospital has now been closed for six months. Staff members have not only lost their jobs, they have not received what they are owed for work already carried out.

“Why do you think the charity hospital closed down?” a former hospital staff member, who asked not to be named, wondered. “All the problems in this country have one single reason, and that is poverty. The government does not want to help this hospital. If the government is right, it should portray the fate of the staff of this hospital in children’s textbooks so that the next generation can see that charity work is no longer needed. Many friends and staff at this hospital have worked hard for years, and for the last five months they have been sitting in corners of their houses, struggling. No one asks them how they are.”

He continued: “They hung signs in the street, thanking and showing appreciation for the medical staff, hung a picture of a nurse with a mask on the walls. But no one is asking people how much they really appreciated them. Between 20 and 30 female heads of household, two of whom have worked in the Sapir Charity Hospital for 15 years, are now housewives, and neither the government nor the charities or anyone else is doing anything for them.”

“Every time we got sick, we would come to this hospital,” said Mohammad, a resident of the neighborhood. “I am the eldest child in the family. My mother gave birth to three more children after me. All three of us were born there. When we had a cold, we went to the doctor there; all the neighborhood did. A year or two ago, the hospital became inactive. They did not have a doctor and there was no care. Nothing has happened for six months. It’s a pity.”

Speaking to the Iranian Labour News Agency (ILNA) on January 19, Soleiman Kohansedgh, a member of the board of directors of Dr. Sapir Charity Hospital, talked about the difficulties the center had faced: “The sharp rise in foreign currency exchange rates and the subsequent rise in the price of medical equipment created many problems for the hospital. We even have to pay cash to buy equipment, and we also have to repay our previous debts — whereas in the past we could buy hospital equipment in instalments and pay for previous purchases gradually. Meanwhile, in 2020, the total wages and benefits of employees increased by 40 percent, while the hospital tariffs did not change by more than 10 percent. As a result, there is no balance between our income and our expenses, and we have had to lay off our staff.”

Hasti is a reporter on social affairs. In 2006, when the hospital was still at its most active, she wrote about the hospital’s history and charitable activities. Today, she’s reporting on its closure. “The hospital has been officially closed since July 25, 2020,” she said. “It has a history of nearly 80 years of serving the people. It was first established for religious minorities, but later, for years it provided medical services to low-income groups. Especially for pregnant mothers who lived in this area, their first hope for a safe delivery was the Sapir Charity Hospital.” Hasti believes the hospital always had financial problems, but with the help of the Ministry of Health and Medical Education, it had somehow managed to continue.

“But in 2020, it did not receive any help from the Ministry of Health,” Hasti said. “New Year and employee bonuses have not been paid, neither for official employees nor for contract workers. The dramatic rise in the price of the dollar has also made it impossible to buy medical equipment and supplies for the hospital. For this reason, the board of directors could not come up with any solution by July 25 other than to close the hospital.”

The Establishment of the Hospital as Told by a Local 

Jalil is 70 years old and from Oudlajan. Locals say he is the oral historian of the neighborhood. So I went to find him to talk to him about Dr. Sapir Hospital. “Poverty has always been misery,” he told me. “The Poles came to Iran in 1942 and sold their typhoid-infected clothes to the poor for a small fee, and the typhus was contagious and spread.”

The typhus epidemic and the sacrifice citizens made to help the sick are said to have inspired the founders of the Mullah Hanina Synagogue to establish the center, then known as the Charity Center Clinic for the Jewish community.

“Oudlajan was a Jewish neighborhood,” Jalil said. “This hospital was established by Jews. Dr. Ruhollah Sapir, a Jewish physician, was one of the founders. He died of typhus a year after the hospital was opened.”

Before the revolution, the hospital was called the Cyrus Hospital, but after the revolution, just the name of Dr. Sapir, as the founder of the charity health center, remained on the sign.

Marjan, also a resident of Oudlajan, has witnessed the shrinking and destruction of the center. “Until the beginning of this year, there were 100 employees, doctors and nurses, but they could not pay their salaries. They gathered outside the hospital several times and protested, calling for their overdue salaries to be paid. Nobody wanted the center to shut down, but it did.”

Soraya worked at Dr. Sapir Charity Hospital. After 10 years of contract work, she has been stuck at home for nearly six months. She has two children. “There is a company in our neighborhood that produces paper products such as handicrafts and origami. I bring home some tools from the company and make a few things for them with my children to earn some money.”

It was a blow not to be paid for the work she did at the hospital, Soraya said. “We have not received salaries, bonuses or benefits since March 2020, and during the last six months of my work in the hospital, I received a total of one month’s salary. Every day we were given promises: one day was the promise of help from the Ministry of Health, another day was the promise of market support and another day was the promise of help from the Tehran Jewish Committee.”

The costs of the charity center were so high that it became impossible for donors to meet them. “I wish the Ministry of Health would have placed more value on a hospital that has been providing charitable services to the people for so many years.

“The last promise from the hospital board, which made us happy in the last few months, was Dr. Zali’s proposal to allocate 30 percent of the hospital beds to coronavirus patients. The board said, if you want 100 percent of the beds, we have no problem. We were told that if this happened, the hospital would receive a grant and equipment would be provided and the hospital would flourish again, and we were happy. Think about it: all the medical staff are upset that the hospital is accepting coronavirus patients, but we were so happy to hear the news to keep the hospital running. But this was delayed so much that it was impossible to keep it open with that amount of debt.”

Reza works in the accounting section of the hospital and says he still has few tasks to complete. “Little by little, they came to the conclusion that it is not possible to rely seriously on help from the Ministry of Health, and even if the hospital is supported this year, next year there will be the same problems. For this reason, the only alternative to maintaining the charity hospital and preventing the unemployment of permanent and contractual staff is to talk to the municipality and build 20 to 30 commercial units on the south side of the hospital and use that as rental income to find a stable support for the hospital.”

Reza reflects that, whether it’s politicians or the management, good intentions have always been a feature of how the hospital has been run. But often, they are just that: good intentions, with no follow-through. In some cases, he says, maybe the will to save the hospital has not been powerful enough, or when it is, action has often come too late. He says he still holds out some hope. Maybe it is not too late to save the Dr. Sapir Charity Hospital and the staff who have made it such a vital part of the community for so many years.

Iran Wire

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Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.