Boston-area medical researcher Ala’a El-Shaar has gone to the Syrian border four times to work with refugee children in psychotherapy centers in Jordan and Turkey. She and other volunteers with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) assist with art, music, and play therapy to help children who have experienced horrors express themselves.
“The trauma has stripped away any type of innocence and childhood that they deserve, so a lot of the kids are aggressive and very obviously scarred by what they had seen,” said El-Shaar, who is the SAMS New England coordinator.
One child who stands out to her particularly is a little boy.
“He had come up to us and was not at all pleased with our presence,” she recalled. “And he said, ‘Do you know what happened to me? Do you know what I saw?’ He saw his whole family basically burned to death.”
El-Shaar can’t begin to imagine what children like that boy have been through, she said, but SAMS New England does all it can to help them and others affected by the five-year civil war in Syria.
SAMS was first formed in 1998 to foster a network of Syrian-American health-care professionals in the United States. In 2011, when the conflict in Syria began, SAMS expanded into humanitarian work to alleviate suffering from the crisis.
“In 1998, we formed with the intention of being an educational outlet for Syrian citizens who were inside Syria. Every year, SAMS … would go to Syria and put on a four-day conference, giving updates on breakthroughs in research and new medical equipment, and bringing to life any advances in science that they could,” El-Shaar said. “Then as soon as the crisis started in 2011, we realized, ‘OK, this is getting out of hand, we need to do something to expand our efforts.’”
The group grew exponentially. Prior to 2011, the group had a single full-time staff member. Today, five years into the crisis, SAMS has more than 70 staff members and foreign offices in Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Lebanon, Greece, and Washington, DC.
The group sponsors field hospitals, ambulances, medical equipment and facilities within Syria and refugee camps, and trains and pays health-care professionals in the war-torn region.
Ahman Tarakji, president of SAMS, described the many refugee children that benefit from SAMS aid, such as Nisreen, a young girl who fled to Lebanon from bombing in Aleppo with 11 members of her family. There, however, she was injured by bomb shrapnel while walking to school and had to undergo surgery in a SAMS-supported facility in the Bekaa Valley.
“She suffered many psychological and physical injuries, as you can imagine, and with many sessions, she was able to get back on her feet and standing,” Tarakji said. “She’s a child, she’s not supposed to be suffering this, but she’s back on her feet and strong.”
Currently, SAMS supports 103 health-care facilities inside Syria, including hospitals, clinics, and intensive-care units that provide services ranging from primary care to mental-health care to trauma centers to obstetrics and gynecology.
“SAMS has been the leading NGO providing medical care to Syrians inside and outside the country,” said Abdulfatah Elshaar, president of SAMS New England. “This year, SAMS treated 2.7 million patients in the first nine months, half of whom are children and women.”
In mid-April, the organization launched SAMS Global Response, a project that aims to provide medical relief to vulnerable persons and refugees. The first project brings volunteers to refugee camps in northern Greece, providing primary health care to about 3,500 refugees.
According to Elshaar, more than 5 million Syrians have fled the country and currently live in refugee camps in surrounding countries. More than 7 million have been displaced internally and more than one million are under siege within the country. More than 8 million children are internally displaced, refugees in other countries or otherwise affected by the crisis.
Besides funding hospitals and medical equipment, groups of volunteers, including trained doctors, go to Syria and surrounding countries on medical missions every few months. There, doctors spend a week treating patients, performing procedures and helping to train people on the ground in Syria.
Technology has helped SAMS communicate with these Syrian professionals, some of whom never finished medical school or aren’t trained for some of the work they’re doing in a war zone.
“The doctors that are inside are being supporting by SAMS members on the daily, by the hour,” El-Shaar said. “It’s insane how much we’re relying right now on WhatsApp [a messaging app]. We get updates on WhatsApp honestly hourly. It’s a way for physicians inside to ask questions.”
SAMS has put together WhatsApp groups for certain medical specialties. If there’s a doctor in Syria who needs help with a certain procedure or advice on a certain patient, he or she can message the group and get advice from American medical professionals in minutes.
In 2016, SAMS transferred three facilities to underground locations to avoid bombing, including moving one to a cave. The organization has trouble with the constant targeting of medical facilities by pro-government forces. According to Anatomy of a Crisis, a map of attacks on health-care centers in Syria created by Physicians for Human Rights, more than 750 medical workers have been killed in Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011, 667 by Syrian government forces.
In the years and years of war, volunteers within SAMS have become worn out.
“It’s just an exhausting crisis,” El-Shaar said. “Every family has been affected by this. Everyone’s either lost someone or a family member has been injured or they’ve been displaced or there have been weeks where they haven’t been able to contact family members. People here are exhausted, which was why we came up with the idea for a concert.”
SAMS held a concert in the historic Old South Church in Boston on Sunday, November 13, with hundreds of guests spilling into upper-level seating to hear the music of two instrumental groups and to raise money.
“We gather here today for a great cause: to help those who are suffering,” Elshaar said at the concert. “This Syrian crisis is the worst humanitarian crisis in our time. It is the worst since WWII.”
At the two-hour “Songs for Syria” concert, Tarakji urged attendees to donate, volunteer and spread awareness about the refugee crisis. Ten percent of donations to SAMS, he said, come from Boston.
“Ask your policymaker to stop the war in Syria—to stop the suffering,” he said. “It’s crazy. It does not make sense.”
By the end of the event, approximately 230 people had donated over $80,000 to support SAMS’s medical work in Syria and Syrian refugee camps. With other donations, that number eventually rose to $90,000.
One problem that SAMS has, El-Shaar said, is that hospitals and medical equipment can be quickly destroyed, so people’s donations can seem pointless.
“Someone may have donated $1,000 to a hospital … and then a week later we’ll receive news that that hospital was bombed,” she said. “So it’s literally like your money was going into the trash. It’s unfortunate, but it’s the reality of the situation. It’s not like we can just sit here and do nothing.”
But El-Shaar has hope for the future. When the conflict ends, she thinks, people will be eager to help reconstruct Syria.
“When people know that they’re going to be donating to rebuild Syria, it’s going to be a completely different case,” she said. “When, hopefully, this crisis is resolved and we’re working to rebuild the country, people are going to be energized and willing [to donate].”
This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.