I spend most of my time in the field listening to people’s stories, trying to understand what they’ve been through, how we’re helping, and what more we could be doing.
I work pretty hard not to let my emotional reactions to the stories I hear get in the way of what I and our teams are trying to do. But at the same time I need to maintain my compassion for those sharing their ordeals with me. I hear stories of tremendous suffering, and then stories of tremendous affirmation – often within minutes of each other. Loss/reunion, despair/hope, pain/healing. Many of the stories I hear have happy endings – many do not.
My visit to Syria was no different. I spent a few days photographing, interviewing and videotaping primarily Iraqi refugees who had fled for safety to Damascus and its suburbs. The numbers of refugees are disputed, but estimates range from several hundred thousand, to 1.3 million.
International Medical Corps was the first American NGO allowed to operate in Syria, providing comprehensive primary and secondary health care, mental health services, maternal/child care, even dental services. It is not easy gaining the trust of officials and the local population in Syria. But our partnership with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent has been critical to getting help to those who need it most.
Damascus, like any large city, has noticeable wealth – as well as deep pockets of poverty and need.
The large population influx has put a huge strain on the country’s health infrastructure. And many Iraqis have arrived with little or no money, and little or no support system. Their medical and mental health needs are enormous.
I spoke with children who witnessed first-hand the killing of mothers, fathers, and siblings. I remember meeting “Fatma”, who is 11. I had walked into an activities center for mothers and children at one of our health clinics and immediately noticed her. She was very pretty but pale, her hair pulled back in a barrette, her eyes downcast, she lifted her head slightly a few times to look at me as I spoke with her mother. Her expressions revealed only profound sadness.
As her mother recounted their story to me, Fatma’s 5-year-old sister hung on her lovingly, or vied for my video camera’s attention, showing off the bright red-haired doll she had made with our staff.
Fatma’s mother explained that when they lived in Baghdad, her husband received repeated sectarian death threats. At one point Fatma was abducted, though she managed to escape. Then their house was bombed and Fatma suffered shrapnel wounds to the back of her head. That’s when the family fled to Syria, about nine months ago. She says Fatma is traumatized. She rarely speaks, she missed two years of school and cannot focus in class, her grades have plummeted from what they once were. She showed me Fatma’s report card, taped back together after Fatma had ripped it in anger and shame.
Our psychosocial coordinator at the center is working with Fatma, her family and others like them to address their issues comprehensively and get them more intensive medical and psychiatric treatment. Fatma is already showing some improvement, though she will take a very long time to heal.
But I am amazed to see the enormous impact we can have through the most simple, innovative measures.
At another center, situated in a run-down neighborhood on the outskirts of Damascus, we are focusing on early childhood development for Iraqis, as well as local children. Our staff and the kids together painted the walls of the center bright colors and planted a beautiful garden. We provide computer classes, plenty of children’s books and a mini-jungle gym, all in a bright, lively setting. Nadia, our program coordinator, is the creative force behind the center. She placed colorful “wish boxes” in one room, where children can submit a simple request for us to fulfill on “Fun Fridays”. Some of their wishes: to ride a horse, to eat a salad, to receive a pair of shoes. For these children – many of whom have lost parents – this center is a little slice a paradise they helped create.
All of the kids I met have witnessed unimaginable horrors, yet they are able to laugh and play like they haven’t a care in the world. Nadia tells me one of the children’s mothers remarked with astonishment: “What did you do? My child had stopped laughing. Now he is happy and smiling again.”