ROME – A seven-month old infant recently died in Syria of leukemia, one of an estimated 5,800 civilians who have died for reasons related to the country’s ongoing civil war in the first half of 2017. He was an orphan, his parents lost to a war that wasn’t theirs. He had no time, and no awareness, to be affiliated with any of the players in the bloody conflict.
He died for the simple reason that his doctors weren’t allowed to treat him.
His crime? Being born in a village under siege, some 6 miles from Damascus. He wasn’t allowed out, and the medicine to treat him wasn’t allowed in, blocked by the government of Basshar Al-Assad, despite pressure from both Russia and Egypt.
His pediatrician, Dr. Nour, believes he could have survived. (For security reasons, “Nour” is a pseudonym.)
Nour also tended to a family that lost three children to cancer, the oldest of whom was a nine-year-old girl. She was the last one to die, a day after the government finally authorized her to leave her besieged village to go to Damascus.
“She’d already lost her eyes by then,” Nour told Crux.
In recent months, the doctor also seen a nine-year-old patient commit suicide because he was too hungry to go on, and a four-year-old die of viral meningitis, an easily treatable disease.
On a daily basis, she sees 60 to 70 patients. On average, two of them have severe malnutrition.
Together with her husband, she’s worked for the past four years in the opposition-controlled area in Idlib, some 30 miles southwest of Aleppo.
In the past seven years, an estimated 70 percent of Syria’s medical staff has either been killed, or has fled the country afraid of being killed. Hospitals, a key target during conflict, have been improvised underground, and locals have added sand bags and concrete, trying to minimize the damage of each shelling.
Nour was in Rome last week, as part of an advocacy trip in Europe by the Syrian American Medical Society Foundation (SAMS), an NGO that’s been working on the ground, focusing most of its efforts in opposition controlled areas, where neither the government nor NGOs working with Al-Assad provide aid.
They visited London, Geneva, Paris, Brussels, Luxembourg, Bern, Oslo, Rome and the Vatican. They came asking for help to fund more doctors, nursing schools and mobile clinics, and also to raise awareness that the conflict in Syria is far from over, and the country is only now seeing the long-lasting damage caused by the war.
While in Rome, the group, which included Dr. Al-Shiekh, a vascular surgeon who was the last doctor to leave Aleppo when the city was evacuated; Dr. Amajad Rass, chairman of SAMS, originally from Syria but who currently lives in the United States with his wife and five kids, and John Dautzenberg, the advocacy manager of SAMS and a former staffer of the White House Office of Legislative Affairs.
All four met with Crux on Wednesday Oct. 25, at the United States’ Embassy to the Holy See. Earlier that morning, Nour and Rass had the opportunity to greet Pope Francis during his weekly general audience, in St. Peter’s Square. She told him they were from Syria.
“I pray for Syria every day, every day,” Francis told her, speaking in English.
The stories they had to share were heart-wrenching, but as humanitarian workers, they refused to name all those whom they perceived as responsible for the conflict, beyond acknowledging that “ISIS kills anybody who’s different to them or who disagrees, including humanitarian aid workers.”
Both Nour and Rass are Muslims, and they feel nothing but shame for the crimes of the so-called Islamic State, the extremist terrorist group that’s been named responsible for committing genocide against Christians and other minorities in both Syria and Iraq.
They did however, issue a warning of sorts to everyone they encountered during their European trip: What’s going on in Syria, is not only Syria’s problem.
Although it might seem that the situation is improving, the humanitarian needs are increasing, not only in Syria but in the region, Rass said. “There’s tension and strain,” he added.
In northern Syria, with hundreds of thousands of new internally displaced people (IDP) arriving in recent weeks, after fleeing ISIS liberated areas adding to those who have been there since the conflict began, the humanitarian crisis grows more dire by the minute.
Many of the new arrivals settle in remote areas hard to access, close to the border with Turkey. They have three reasons for this: The refugee camps are overflowing, and life in them is “no life,” according to Nour. In addition, they hope that by staying close to the Turkish border they might be safe from the Syrian conflict, and in the case they’re not, that they’ll be able to cross to Turkey.
“Just think logically,” said Dautzenberg, who worked at the White House during the Obama administration. “When you have young children or entire families living in remote areas, with deep psychological distress, starving, not having access to health care, not having a job … This is the dream of extremist recruiters.”
Repeating what might sound like a prepared speech but nevertheless one full of meaning and fueled by desperation – being a witness to the international inaction – he continued: “It’s a dangerous recipe, when you have so many people who have nothing else to turn to and who feel everyone has abandoned them.”
To prevent extremist recruitment, SAMS and other NGOs, including Catholic ones such as papal charities Aid to the Church in Need and Caritas, the Knights of Malta, and the U.S.-based Knights of Columbus, have all been working with people on the ground and sending aid – through the government, the United Nations and, in the case of SAMS, on their own, going to areas controlled by the opposition.
“This is not only a Syrian problem,” Rass added. “No matter how you look at it. For the future of Europe, a question: Do you want to have a large, forgotten Syrian generation? Do you want more uneducated children in Syria? Do you want them to be targets of ISIS, Al-Qaeda, or whatever name they take in the future?”
“This is not only Syria’s problem,” he insists.
All four agree that “opposition” is a loose term to refer to those who are not with Al-Assad. From “moderate” rebels to ISIS, from Al-Qaeda and beyond, they estimate that today there are between 30 and 50 opposition groups, many of which keep changing names and faces every other week, but are still there, and still threatening.
The never-ending list of rebel groups, Dautzenberg acknowledged, is a problem from a political perspective, a security perspective, a donors perspective and of course, a humanitarian perspective. Yet, he counteracts, doctors such as Nour and Al-Shiekh continue to go to work to save lives, and both express eagerness to go back to the field.
The safety of Europe was no balm to them, knowing that people’s lives depended on them back home.
“What we’ve seen is a blatant failure from the international community to try to prevent this splintering and further extremism,” Dautzenberg said. “Every day that passes it becomes harder to fix. When you look for solutions, it’s so much more complicated than three years ago. Some of the solutions feasible then, aren’t so now. And the international community would be lying to you if anyone says ‘we did this well.’”
The challenges continue to mount on a daily basis. The number of patients dying from treatable diseases continues to grow. Cases of severe malnutrition are sky-rocketing, which will have long-term consequences: A toddler who severely lacked proper nourishment will see his or her intellectual capacity diminished for life.
In addition, many patients are afraid to go to medical facilities because they’re afraid they’ll be bombed. Nour told a story from April 2017, when the central hospital in Maarrat al-Nu’man in northern Syria was bombed. The mother of one of the surviving children decided to bring her daughter back home, despite the fact that she desperately needed treatment.
“If death is destined for my child, I want her to die in one piece,” the mother told Nour.
Adding to that, there’s a diminished capacity of hospitals and emergency centers, and those that remain are severely understaffed, especially to deal with mass casualties or chemical weapons attacks.
“Just imagine what it means to have more than 100 injured people simultaneously hospitalized in a seriously under-equipped field hospital built underground, or what it means to have more than 1,000 cases of asphyxiation, mostly children, grasping for their lives after a chemical attack,” she said.
Both Nour and Al-Shiekh (also a pseudonym) are in their early 30s. In his case, he went to Aleppo despite not having finished his residency, learning on the ground, with the help of foreign doctors who went to the city in various missions during the early stages of the war.
Al-Shiekh moved to Aleppo, leaving his wife and a newborn in Turkey. When she tried to summon him back two months later, he refused to return home.
“I knew I needed to stay there, people needed me,” he said. Had it not been for him, hundreds would have lost limbs. “It was very difficult to work in the underground hospitals in Aleppo. If it wasn’t for the commitment to the humanitarian cause, you can’t do it. As a doctor, as a surgeon, you’re not strong enough.”
Yet as dire as the situation is, it could soon get even worse. Northern Syria currently receives its foreign aid through the border with Turkey, via passages that have been kept open through the UN’s Security Council Resolution 2332.
However, the mandate needs to be supported again at the end of the year (it ends January 2018) and the group fears it won’t: “There are efforts being made by some to bloc it,” Dautzenberg said.
“By Russia,” Rass, SAMS’s CEO, added resolutely. “And this is not a political statement, it’s a humanitarian cry.”
The cross-border operation, the group argued, is what’s keeping the two million refugees living in the region alive. If the UN agencies are not allowed to deliver aid cross borders, then all of it will fall in the hands of Al-Assad.
“If you take away the ability for the NGOs to operate freely, you’re further weaponizing access to humanitarian aid,” Dautzenberg explained. “But everyone who’s been on the ground has done it, and has acknowledged doing so. This resolution and the ability to continue to provide aid to the north is huge.”