April 17, 2017
It’s now 4:40pm in Amman, and 8:40am in Chicago as I write this from 30,000 feet up above the Atlantic. (I mean “writing” in the literal sense – thanks to the #ElectronicsBan on flights from Arab cities, I’m rediscovering how atrocious my longhand is.) As I begin my reentry to life in Chicago I am trying to put this medical mission trip to Jordan with SAMS – my third – in perspective.
As mission leader, I have three personal goals for every mission:
1) Care for Syrian refugees and others in need, as many as possible
2) Engender a sense of advocacy among the volunteers
3) Bring to light the refugees’ true experiences and hardships
In the first case, we were successful. Our estimates are that we treated almost 3500 patients in 6 days, including 30 orthopedic and plastic reconstructive surgeries and 22 neurosurgical cases – the first time neurosurgery has been included in a mission. The results of these operations were unprecedented.
Dr. Khalid Kurtom performed operations that resulted in refugees regaining the ability to walk; in one instance, he removed a sniper’s bullet from a refugee’s neck that had been a centimeter away from killing him. Dr. Hisham Bismar returned for his second Jordan tour and completed a two-part series of operations that not just cured a refugee mother’s hand cancer, but restored it to functionality instead of amputating. Instead of seven refugee children losing their mother to cancer, she’s alive to care for them for the rest of their upbringing.
In the second case, we were also successful. Most of our group of 50 doctors, nurses, dentists, and translators were on their first medical mission; most indicated that their lives had been deeply affected by the experience of caring for the refugees. Many indicated that they intended to return; and judging by the posts of George A. Oyler, Kiumars Moghadam, Sami Dent, Jo Blank, Summer Elshenawy, and others I look forward to seeing them again on missions in the future.
My visit to Zaatari at the end of the mission was a jarring counterpoint to the rest of the mission, where we saw refugees with less acute situations. The reason for this is not because the war in Syria is easing. Syria continues to bleed its people, forced out upon pain of death. However, due to the overload of the surrounding countries, less and less of them are being permitted out. Jordan has sealed its border with Syria out of necessity due to continual attacks from ISIS- allied groups. This has meant that we did not see the acuity of the ongoing war as we had last year. Last April’s mission saw us performing surgeries upon recent victims of air bombing; this mission, we had none. (Note: as of this week, I have been told that the Jordanian government has begun to allow 15 refugees in a day for medical care for humanitarian reasons.)
As a result, the evidence of the war’s atomizing effect upon normal human life and existence was harder to pick up, often subtle and manifesting itself only upon deeper examination. After a difficult and long clinic in the town of Irbid, for example, the local nurse came up to me and asked me a personal medical question:
“Doctor, I have this sensation near my belly button that there’s something foreign under the skin.”
“Can you feel it?”
“Yes, it’s where I had the operation.”
“To remove the bullet. You see, back here – ” as she nonchalantly turned to her right flank, “ – is where the sniper hit me, and where the bullet went through my liver. They took it out from the front.”
The Syrian Civil War has now entered its seventh year. Despite the hundreds of thousands killed, the world still has no coherent response to end the bloodshed. The Internet teems with hundreds of hours of videos filled with emaciated corpses, bodies flayed apart, and children gasping their last painful breaths. Despite that, there remains a calculus among certain countries that views prolonged support of air strikes of civilians as within their own narrow self interest, buffeted by a collective shrug from most of a world inured to scenes of death on their smartphones.
We’ve been blessed to have the support of so many people – spiritually, morally, financially – and many of you have called the members of our mission heroes. While I firmly believe that my volunteers are among the finest people I have been honored to work with, I also know that none of us regards ourselves that way. The heroes of our missions are the patients who work hard to overcome their health struggles despite their dispossession. They are the mothers and fathers who sacrifice and work themselves ragged to keep their families intact and to give their children hope.
The real heroes will also be those who come together to bring an end to the war that has made our patients refugees in the first place.
SAMS Jordan Mission Leader, April 2017