Last month, I stood in a muddy field of one of the 1,250 camps for the internally displaced people in Idlib, an embattled city in northern Syria. It was raining and the mud was a couple feet deep. Children were wearing light shoes and slippers.
As a volunteer Syrian-American doctor living in Chicago, I have been in many disaster zones with my organization, MedGlobal. We provide free medical care to the displaced and refugees. I have participated in medical missions from Yemen, Colombia, Gaza, Greece, Iraq, Lebanon and Jordan, to the Rohingya crisis in Bangladesh. What I have witnessed in the underground hospitals of Aleppo and Idlib and the thousands of refugee camps dispersed in the neighboring countries is by far the worst. It is beyond description, a horror movie going on for nine years without an end in sight.
The cries of Abdalla, an 11-year-old child from Aleppo who had shrapnel stuck in his lungs, still haunt me. We were forced to place a chest tube to drain the blood from his chest without local anesthesia because of the shortage of medication.
I recently brought back to Chicago drawings from Idlib drawn by beautiful Syrian children in one of the 1,250 camps near the city. The children of the camp that I visited last month were displaced seven times before they ended up in a camp that is freezing cold and full of mud. The children drew using the mud that their small feet had to suffer from walking every morning to their school two miles away. They dream of becoming doctors, teachers, and architects like our children.
Sunday, March 15 marked nine years since Syria descended into war. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 384,000 people have died, including more than 116,000 civilians. The United Nations has declared the Syrian crisis the worst humanitarian crisis in our lifetime and the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The conflict has displaced more than half of the country's people and created the largest refugee population in the world.
Though Syria accounts for less than 1 percent of the world’s population, its people make up nearly one-third of refugees worldwide. The recent crisis in Idlib was labeled as “the biggest humanitarian horror story of the 21st century” according to the UN Under-Secretary of Humanitarian Affairs.
Still, nothing has been done.
Over the past two months, half a million Syrian children have been displaced in Idlib. According to the UN, more than 950,000 Syrian civilians were displaced since the beginning of the Syrian regime’s airstrikes on schools, hospitals, refugee camps, and neighborhoods in Idlib province. More than 67 hospitals were targeted by the Syrian regime and Russian airstrikes.
Dr. Mohammed Jalal, a Syrian neurosurgeon, told me that he goes every morning to his hospital to operate on his patients. He does not know whether he will return to his family alive by the end of the day. He is an amazing surgeon, a true hero like all Syrian healthcare workers. According to Physicians for Human Rights, more than 916 doctors and nurses were killed in Syria and more than 580 hospitals were bombed mostly by the Assad regime and Russia.
It is shameful that international medical organizations have been mostly silent while their Syrian colleagues are being targeted for discharging their medical duty and defending the Hippocratic oath. Hospitals are running short of solutions. Patients with chronic diseases are unable to buy their medications. It will be a disaster if the Coronavirus spreads in Syria. Dr. Loubna Alsaad, a pediatrician who was displaced with her husband and two-year-old toddler from the city of Maarat Noman told me that she is seeing many children with psychological trauma and severe malnutrition for the first time in her life. Many die in silence, starving to death.
Even tents are not available. The International Organization of Migration has made it so difficult and so complicated to provide basic tents to the hundreds of thousands of the displaced.
Idlib has 4 million people who are trapped in a smaller area than the state of Delaware. It is landlocked. Turkey said that it can’t take more than the 3.7 million Syrian refugees that it already hosts.
Syrian children are freezing to death while the United Nations officers and its Secretary-General issue reports on the “horrifying conditions” in their warm and cozy offices in NYC and Geneva. In the last week, two children I met — Ghufran, 4 months old and Eman, 18 months old — have frozen to death.
Still, after nine years, the world seems fatigued by news of the Syrian war. Only three current or former Democratic candidates for president— Pete Buttigieg, Massachusets Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders—have said anything about the current catastrophe in Idlib. Buttigieg tweeted, “America's leaders can no longer watch in silence as Assad and Russia attack innocent Idlib civilians.” Syria was only mentioned once so far in the Democratic debates.
The US government can salvage the credibility of the US and prove that it has the upper hand — not Vladimir Putin — by making Syria a priority and forcing Putin to stop the bombing of Syrian children and hospitals. Russia was given a free hand to create chaos and feed into extremism and sectarianism over the past nine years in Syria. The world expects the US to lead. We should not shy away from our moral responsibilities. Others will fill the void and the results will be disastrous.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres can salvage his credibility and prove to the world that the United Nations is still relevant and can lead during crises. He needs to travel to Idlib like he did when he traveled to the Bahamas and other disaster regions. He needs to hold a press conference with Syrian children. He can choose any of the 1,250 camps that host 1.5 million displaced civilians. They are all safe. He needs to tell the world that the UN is serious about protecting human rights, protecting civilians, delivering aid and maintaining peace and security. Why aren’t there UN observers in Idlib right now to provide humanitarian aid and enforce ceasefire?
Every person of consciousness should pay attention and call his or her member of Congress to protect Syrian children. If we don’t, it will come back to haunt us. And inaction is a stain on our collective conscience.