Syrian refugee doctor offers care for the dying

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Three years of brutal war in Syria has seen almost three million people flee across the country’s borders in what has become one of the largest forced migrations since World War Two.

In the Turkish border town of Reyhanli, there are over 60,000 Syrian refugees. 

Abdullah Zogby is one of them.

But he is also a doctor who is working illegally in the town’s only clinic in a effort to help the sick and injured who make it onto Turkish soil.

Every day Doctor Abdullah sees at least 60 patients, all of whom have crossed the border illegally, so they are not eligible for UN or government assistance. 

“Refugees coming from Syria,” Abdullah tells me in broken English during a telephone interview earlier this year. “The war, the kidnapping. It’s very, very harsh conditions. And then they are here, and they are poor and they are homeless.”

200,000 Syrians have died from chronic illnesses

The estimated numbers of people who have died during the uprising is shocking; and a surprising amount are dying due to long-term conditions as opposed to the widely reported deaths in conflict.

The latest figures from the European Commission estimate that since the start of the war, 200,000 Syrians have died from chronic illnesses due to lack of access to treatment and medicines, which is in fact more than the estimated 162,000 people who have died as a direct result of warfare.

650,000 people have also been wounded in the conflict and many of these injuries have resulted in long-term disabilities. Vaccination programmes have been disrupted or halted and outbreaks of polio and measles are rife.

Abdullah tells me that at the clinic he works in, which is based in the Orient hospital, he can provide interventions such as ultrasound, x-ray, laboratory tests and medical examinations. But admits, “if it’s out of our control we will refer to another hospital in Turkey. We have little support, we are often helpless.”

However, Abdullah is no different from the people he treats in many ways. He says that he has been running for his life for two years.

He first fled from the Syrian government because he treated rebel soldiers, and then from the radical fighters because he was viewed as “not religious enough.” And to this day, Abdullah still fears for his life: 

“Four times God saved me from death. One time the bullet from the Assad regime was two centimetres from my head.”

Turkey became Abdullah’s only option to escape Syria and he says that the impact of the prolonged, bloody war is having a devastating effect on his family. 

His 14-year-old son Nabil tried to kill himself. And then he tried to kill his younger brother. Abdullah fears, quite understandably, that the war has deeply traumatised his son.

Providing end of life care

But despite these horrific circumstances and unrelenting fear for both his and his family’s life, the doctor continues to help the refugees, many who are in the last weeks or days of their life.

“I am treating patients, that is all. Both sides are criticising me. But it is my job to help them. My conscience means I have to serve them, to help them.”

Abdullah tells me about a patient who died earlier that day. A 60-year-old male who it’s thought was suffering from cardiac problems.

“I was astonished. Only 60 years. He died because there was no more care. His son called me and I suggest IV fluids, but it was too late and after one hour he had died.”

And if having to deal with this tragic situation wasn’t hard enough for the family of the deceased man, they now also face the struggle of trying to bury him in his homeland.

“It’s our tradition, the patient wrote a will: ‘please bury me in my home,” Abdullah tells me.

“I will try to contact Turkish government in the morning to help me know how to move him. I told them now to preserve him in a cold place. I expect if we have to move him it will be very, very difficult because transfer a dead body of a man into Syria is very dangerous.”

The family will need a death certificate and because Abdullah is working in secret, he is unable to issue one.

“If the Turkish government discovers I am working here I will be in trouble. I am only allowed to work medicine in Syria. I will try to help him, otherwise I will persuade his son to bury him in Turkey.

“Today is winter. I have advised to put him in very cool room until morning. If transfer tomorrow, no problem. If we fail, I will need fridge in turkey hospital.”

‘We will pray for him’

I ask Abdullah if he was planning to accompany the deceased man and his family across the border.

“We should not go to Syria. I will die. Will make a prayer. We will pray for him.”

Abdullah says this is part of a typical day for him now, he will see one or two deaths a day in the town, but he is keen to emphasise the atrocities that are still taking place across the border:

“In Syria, you might see more than 200 deaths each day,” he says, despondently.

He tells me that many older patients he is asked to see are refusing drugs and care and reluctant to see a doctor or go the hospital. There are many suicide attempts according to Abdullah, “because they just want to die.”

“I have many difficulties in my country,” he continues. “I lost everything, my home. I am afraid about my children. They are young.”

I feel I have to tell Abdullah what incredible work he is carrying out despite the tragedy he and his family are surrounded by.

But he replies, “I don’t need praising I need my life and my family life. I don’t know what I will do. I am not safe anywhere.”

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