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Why international NGOs matter in times of crisis: a Syrian doctor’s story

The violence arrived in my city, Ar-Raqqa, in 2013 after two years of anxious waiting and prayers that our homes and lives would be spared. Receiving six hours of electricity a day was a luxury and being able to afford medical treatment became more and more challenging, until it was almost impossible for the poorest of us.

I was always on the move between the national hospital and a field hospital I stocked along with some colleagues, in case the national hospital was bombarded and we needed an alternative healthcare facility. Every time I left a building I believed it was going to be my last move, but I had been blessed with knowledge and was going to use it to help heal the wounded even if I ended up being wounded myself.

The field hospital we prepared was bombed, the national hospital was bombed, and soon after that my family’s house was hit with four rockets. I was walking home from the national hospital when that happened. I started picking up pace when I saw smoke coming from the direction of our home, and without realizing it I was soon running down streets, jumping over fences and pushing away cars with my eyes fixed on the smoke coming from my street, my heart pounding. I will never forget the moment I entered our street and saw that the roof of our house had fallen off and my father’s car was on fire.

I don’t know how I managed to quickly check that no one was seriously injured, find a van, and immediately evacuate my parents and everyone taking refuge in our home to our river house where we spent the night. In the morning we decided that it was time to leave the city. We moved north to the city of Suluk and I started searching for healthcare providers that were still functioning in the region, in order to join them and help as much as I could. To my pleasant surprise I read online that Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was starting a project in a nearby town and did not hesitate a second before contacting them to join their team on the ground and help the thousands of families that were, like us, forced to take refuge in the north of Syria.

The MSF clinic I joined was up and running in less than two weeks. We were seeing an average of 120 cases a day, and the wider the word of our presence spread across the neglected northern towns the more people travelled to our clinic to seek the medical care they so urgently needed. I learned from my expat colleagues that as MSF-ers we were not only doctors to the patients; we were their friends who listened to their stories, shared our sympathy and helped when we could.

Expanding our activities was extremely challenging due to the volatile situation on the ground and the recurrent eruptions of inter-faction clashes alongside regime – opposition fights. Still, the need for expansion was undeniable, and the opening of a paediatric hospital in the city of Tal-Abyad was a life saving decision felt by many refugee families who came to us with their severely ill and malnourished children. Sadly, after only 20 days of running our activities in the paediatric hospital, the most violent clashes erupted in the city and my expat colleagues were evacuated to Turkey for their safety.

I soon moved to Turkey as well as part of the coordination team, and to our surprise we received many phone calls from other Syrian staff who remained in Syria asking us to continue our activities. They told us that they were willing to continue their work in the hospital, and that they felt it was safe enough for them to do so. MSF responded by continuing their support on a remote basis; we established a system through which critically ill patients that required advanced medical care were to be referred to Turkey for our team to admit them to appropriate Turkish hospitals for follow up.

I was in charge of this referral program and I can say that most of the cases we referred were infants of poor refugee families that arrived at the Turkish border confused and scared of the unknown, with nothing but their Syrian IDs and their critically ill children. Those families agreed to go to Turkey for two main reasons: the first was in the hope of saving their babies, and the second was because they trusted MSF to help them through their journey in an unknown land.

I remember a case in which the father of a premature boy told me, before he left his child with us in the intensive care unit in Turkey, that nothing in this world broke his heart more than having to leave his first born critically ill in a foreign land. However, he had no choice; he was duty-bound to return to Syria to look after his elderly parents who had no carer but him. He said that if it was not for us and our referral program he would have accepted his son’s fate and left him to die in Syria. He told me that he trusted that his son would be well looked after by us, and that we would help reunite them after his son’s recovery. Two months later his son made a full recovery and we did indeed reunite them in Turkey after a long and heart-breaking separation.

This is what MSF did when I was working with them before I came to the UK and this is what MSF continues to do all over the world. The war has beaten us to our knees and has taken so much from us, yet it could not take away the hope that one day it will all be over and we will return to rebuild our homes and wash away the stains of hatred and violence. But until then we need help. We need to know that someone out there still cares. Someone impartial, honest, trustworthy and always ready to deliver. Someone like MSF.

Featured image: an improvised lamp made from mandarin peel and cooking oil, used for light in Raqqa after the electricity had gone down and all stores had sold out of candles © Thaier Alhusain

Thaier Alhusain Dr Thaier Alhusain is from Syria and is the founder of 6abibak, an online Arabic-language medical journal. He worked with numerous international NGOs during the Syrian crisis including Médecins Sans Frontières in Syria and in Turkey. Thaier holds an MSc in International Health from UCL and currently resides in Cardiff.

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