BY SARAH YAZJI.
Photography by Suleyman Tapsiz and Sarah Yazji.
It was July 2012 and the second time I visited the Turkish-Syrian border to volunteer at the refugee rehabilitation clinic. A young Syrian boy lay nearly unconscious and whimpering on the operating table. His light hair, torn clothes, and small body were blackened by dust.
His severely mutilated arm and leg were carefully propped up. I heard the few doctors around me state, “third degree burns,” in horror. The child was a victim of a rocket that blasted his home to pieces. The room was tense. Every time a child came into the procedure room, this tenseness grew heavier. The children served as a reminder of the reality of the bloodshed in Syria.
The following day I visited Zakaria in his small room on the second floor of the center. Using his good hand, Zakaria was punching buttons on his grandfather’s old Nokia cell phone as he played Tetris and scrolled through the phone’s settings to pass time. His tired eyes looked up at me when I walked in, and he asked me to sit beside him as he went to the pictures on the phone. He showed me pictures of his mother, two sisters and little brother, and he shared with me stories of their childhood adventures. His eyes grew wide and excited as he recounted these stories, and I sat with him for hours thinking about how he did not know that he was now an orphan.
Over this past spring break, four Yalies, Mansur Ghani ‘14, Zunaira Arshad ‘17, Moustafa Moustafa MS ’15, and I, joined a group of seven other students on a trip to southern Turkey for two weeks. Our group’s aim was to gain first-hand experiences of the situation and relief work on the ground and develop ways in which students can contribute to the cause.
For the majority of the members before this trip, the extent of their familiarity with the situation of Syria came from the infamous statistics that are stamped and regularly updated on the fact sheets of UNHCR and UNICEF or that make their way to the lower banners of broadcasting networks: over 130,000 reported dead, over 2 million refugees, over 5.5 million children directly harmed by the conflict and the numbers grow by the thousands each day.
These statistics depersonalize the situation. The lives ruined, lost, and forever changed do not emanate from these digits, nor do these numbers tell you about the child who watched his family murdered in front of his eyes or the 19-year-old with paralyzed legs who was carried half-conscious to the nearest makeshift hospital or the pregnant mother who, along with her fetus, was instantly killed by the sniper bullet that pierced her belly. These stories, unique yet replayed each day with new victims, have characterized the lives of Syrians for over three years.
On our trip this spring break, we were given the opportunity to meet the advocates and the victims. We met the hidden heroes who enter Syria to help with the knowledge that their lives will be placed severely at risk. We met refugees who just crossed out of Syria; their children shake and cry at the sound of Turkish motorcars and planes. We provided a hand to hold, an ear to listen, and, ultimately, a voice to share their stories.
From our trip, we learned that the humanitarian and medical situation of Syria is constantly changing and consistently insufficient to the needs to say the least. It is ideal to imagine that when a city in Syria is under shelling, there is a nearby hospital taking in the influx of the traumatically injured, but the absolute truth is that there is no such thing as a “safe zone” in these cities. It is precisely the hospitals and medical system that are targets of the Syrian government forces as part of their sick game to destroy rescue efforts. The UN Commission of Inquiry has even reported that, “the denial of medical care as a weapon of war is a distinct and chilling reality of the war in Syria.”
As a result of this targeting, makeshift hospitals are hugely kept hidden, moving from homes to schools to offices in an effort to relocate after the previous hospital site is destroyed or infiltrated. During our visit to southern Turkey, reports came in to the main NGO coordinating internal medical relief efforts, Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), that one of the few functioning makeshift hospitals in Aleppo was struck and demolished. Each hour the available medical facilities and resources shift or fail as shelling or airstrikes continue in Syria.
This phenomenon extends beyond the hospitals and clinics and ultimately comes down to the systematic targeting of doctors and medical personnel. For physicians, remaining inside Syria means conceding personal security and the safety of family and friends. Every physician we met recounted colleagues, doctors, nurses and medical students who were captured, brutally tortured, and killed by the government regime. Over 400 doctors alone have been killed since the start of the war.
It is no wonder that out of the 6,000 physicians that practiced in and around the largest city in Syria, Aleppo, only 6 remain. One of these physicians, one of the hidden heroes from Aleppo, told us how densely populated areas in the city are struck several times in the same spot. He then explained how the regime uses a tactic of murdering the medical response team by having snipers set up around the site to take down any person who attempts to pull out the bodies. When we asked him what drives him to stay in Aleppo despite the enormous danger he faces, he shrugged and said this isn’t a question he can answer. He then asked, “What if that child who needs help was my ten year old son?
Just five days ago in Aleppo over 40 barrel bombs were dropped in two neighborhoods. In this city of over 2 million, only one licensed anesthesiologist remains. We were given the honor to have met this man during his short trip to the border. He told us how in response to the utter lack of nurses and physicians to care for the civilians of Aleppo, he trained a carpenter to perform invasive procedures such as intubation and IV catheter insertions into the jugular and femoral veins. These are the realities of medical care in Syria.
With these unimaginable stories and with what we have witnessed, we have learned to reevaluate our understanding of what constitutes standard medical care. We have learned about the frustrating reality of the health situation inside this once-thriving country. We have learned about how deeply politics within governments and even within NGOs ultimately decide the extent of external aid to the victims of this war. But even more so, we have learned that the real work and differences are made by those who are on the ground. These incredible individuals who uphold what remains of the healthcare system in this war zone, distributing resources, providing treatment, and reporting the stories, are rarely spoken of in the media, but they are the most essential components to saving lives in Syria.
The Syrian health system lacks many things, most notably stability and resources. We have been exposed to this depressing truth, but that is only a part of it. During our time spent there we learned that innovative ideas, lasting friendships and hard work have been put to the test and succeeded amidst the war. Despite the fact that this conflict enters its fourth year, the Syrian people remain steadfast in battling and eventually overcoming the injustices and crimes they have dealt with ceaselessly.
We as students have chosen to travel to the brink of this war zone to listen to the witnesses and connect to the relief efforts, but it is even more important that we share the unbelievable tragedies and resilience of these people. For three years, from the eyes of the Syrians, the world has silently watched the tragedy, but it only takes your voice, your advocacy, and your effort to provide relief, in your own capacity, that can truly change their lives.