The Unsung Heroes of Syria

Photos and stories of doctors working in conflict and under other forms of duress are compelling for many reasons. Their bravery and commitment to their patients is admirable, and attacks against those caring for others are unjustifiable in any conflict. Targeting health workers and medical infrastructure can have serious long-term health impacts on communities. The violence in Syria is relentless, with hospitals, medical transports, and health professionals under frequent attack simply because they are doing their jobs and trying to heal bodies broken during this protracted crisis. Listening to the stories, internalizing the risks they face every day, and saying “goodbye” is profoundly difficult, as that next attack may be a fatal one.

Despite this desperation, there is an equally compelling parallel narrative about the doctors who have fled Syria and are working with Syrian refugees in bordering countries. They are refugees themselves, lacking proper work authorization, facing discrimination in every corner, and trying to eke out a living to support their families in countries unwilling to provide stable residential status to them. Many of them experience survivors’ guilt related to the family and friends they left behind, those who have died, and other doctors remaining in Syria, who bear the burden of treating acute wounds in dangerous circumstances. The psychological impact of survivors’ guilt is little understood, especially among lay people, and the dearth of adequate psychosocial support for refugees compounds the intense emotional feelings of many people in crisis.

Yet, these refugee doctors do not give up and wallow in self-pity. Rather, they organize in exile in order to support the exodus of their people. As the wounded, tortured, and starved straggle across the Syrian border, these physicians find ways to treat patients and triage care. They put themselves and their families at risk, operating under the radar in gray immigration status to provide care for the growing number of Syrians seeking safety in neighboring countries.

These doctors also provide a critical link between Syria and the outside world, arranging for funding and transport of medical supplies into Syria, organizing trainings of Syrian doctors, and helping NGOs coordinate their efforts to assist those displaced both inside and outside Syria. These doctors meet with UN officials, embassy staff, NGOs, journalists, and others in order to humanize the conflict and help us understand how we can work to support them. Moreover, many of them are medically documenting the human rights violations – torture, sexual violence, and other cruel treatment – that are being committed within Syrian borders. They are building a body of medical evidence that will irrefutably demonstrate the horrors that have been perpetrated over the past three years of conflict. And they will be ready to testify and explain, in future justice and accountability processes, why their conclusions are sound.

Many of these doctors work seven days a week and often throughout the night. I receive work-related emails from them at 2am their time, and I know that they will respond around the clock to almost any query I send. I know that they are driven both by the desire to help their people and re-build their country, but also, too often, by guilt for leaving Syria. Without these incredibly committed doctors, organizations, including Physicians for Human Rights, would not be able to provide effective assistance to the Syrian people. We are grateful for their efforts, and are proud to be their friends and colleagues.

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