There are certain moments and experiences in ones life that can be said to be “life-changing”. We all have them, whether we recognize it at the moment or not.
My trip to the Syrian Refugee Camps was one such experience for me.
I’m no stranger to international travel and global medicine, having made many trips overseas and even living abroad on multiple separate occasions. But none of those things prepared me for my work with the Syrian refugees. I planned to write throughout my experience in real-time, but after the first day, I found myself wanting to focus on the moments at hand, to give everything I had to being present – and to focus on the people around me. But now, the trip behind me, and some debriefing in place, I am ready to reflect.
All stories told from this point onward and all photos shared are done so with permission of the people who transferred them so carefully into my hands. And now…some background….
“The conflict in Syria is so convoluted that it warrants explanation – it has created the most complex humanitarian aid problems of our time, being designated a “Level 3 emergency” by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the highest designation of complexity for an aid operation. Over 220,000 people have been killed and more than 1 million injured since 2010. The crisis has displaced more than 7.6 million Syrians within the country, and almost 4 million more are refugees in neighboring countries. It has decimated the economy, the education system, and the security of the nation, and created an entire generation of unemployed, uneducated Syrians with few prospects for the future.
Health care in Syria has also collapsed. In the five years of conflict, over half of Syria’s hospitals have been badly damaged or destroyed, and attacks on medical facilities have escalated, forcing the abandonment of many hospitals and clinics. Airstrikes on medical clinics and aid convoys have become commonplace, and many medical facilities now operate underground. Hospitals will not display the organizational logos of their international partners for fear of reprisal. To compound this problem, only a fraction of the country’s trained medical staff remain within its borders. In January 2014, Physicians for Human Rights estimated that 15,000 Syrian doctors had fled the country. In the besieged city of Aleppo, only 250 physicians, just 4 percent of the prewar total of 6,000 doctors, remained. This collapse of the medical system has come at the time of greatest need. Syrian citizens cannot travel across lines of conflict to health care. Performing surgeries is nearly impossible, medications are severely restricted, and public health has collapsed, as evidenced by the first polio outbreak in Syria in fifteen years.”
-The World’s Emergency Room (Michael VanRooyen)
I had no idea of the severity of the situation in the Middle East prior to this trip. I probably knew more than the average layperson…but trying to keep myself up to date with BBC world news, NPR talk radio, and whatever political and crisis updates were trending on twitter wasn’t enough. It’s never enough. I did the best I could, I collected all the resources I thought I may need, I fundraised for additional money for medications and trip expenses, I packed what I could, and shortly after residency graduation, I was ready to go. I had a dinner the night before I left the US and my friends asked me “are you excited?”. I wasn’t sure. I knew I was heading into something unfamiliar and I have often found that the best way to cope in such situations is to minimize expectations from the outset.
I wasn’t excited. I wasn’t nervous. I wasn’t scared. I just…was. So, I ate my celebratory cheesecake, and took myself and my bags to LAX.
It was over ten hours to Paris from Los Angeles, and another six to Amman. By the time we finally had wheels on the ground in Jordan, I was ready for a shower and a good night’s sleep. Luckily, both were on the agenda and after a short cab ride I found myself in a clean bed at the Marriott in Amman, dreaming of what the next day would bring…