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How the Syrian Civil War Turned Me Into a Doctor

3 minute read
Muhammad Darwish, 26, became one of three remaining doctors in the besieged town of Madaya, Syria –home to 40,000 people – despite his lack of medical training. He is one of five finalists for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, which is awarded annually in Yerevan, Armenia, on behalf of the survivors of the Armenian Genocide and in gratitude to their saviors. This year’s ceremony will be held on May 28.

Situated in the mountains not far from the Lebanese border, my home town, Madaya used to be a popular mountain resort. That changed in the summer of 2015 when the Syrian civil war reached us. At that time, I was a year away from completing my studies to become a dentist.

I left university and returned to my town, shocked by the scenes of destruction. Many had abandoned all their belongings and fled. Thousands were injured, yet most of the doctors had either left or been arrested. I felt it was my duty to my town and my people to help in some way. These were the people I grew up with— my family and friends— normal people with normal lives. Hearing the hopeless cry of a small child, blood mixed with tears running down his face, I had to act.

I had studied dentistry, not surgery but despite my lack of experience I went to work in the hospital. There were so many people in need of help. I had to take a crash course on practicing medicine, learning from the one licensed doctor – before he, too, left. Today, there are no medical specialists, only limited, rudimentary medical equipment and no access to the most basic medicines. And yet, the demands for our services are relentless. We treat up to 100 people each day. The town is surrounded by 14,000 landmines, and dozens of snipers target the town continuously.

Soon it was just me and the other inexperienced “doctors” doing the best we could. The first time we performed a surgery, fear took over, because we had a man’s life in our hands. We knew we weren’t qualified, but we had no choice. The man’s parents told us to go ahead, because delaying was not an option. During the operation, I took pictures on my smart phone of what was happening, then left the operating room, where there is no Internet access, to ask doctors for advice using WhatsApp. Then I returned, re-sterilized, and continued. When the operation was successfully completed, we all cried.

Because of our isolation in a war zone, we receive a small amount of international aid — limited to rice, groats and beans – all carbohydrates. People lack protein and other essential nutrients. This has led to severe forms of malnutrition. This is something we’d never seen before, yet we struggle to manage it.

The siege has now lasted two years. It permeates your very being and has a suffocating effect. The familiar streets where I played as a boy are now strewn with bodies, the blood of victims, piercing wails and silent incredulity. The hospital has been almost constantly targeted by shelling and sniper fire. We’ve been personally threatened and forced to move four times.

But we persist and I maintain hope. As I say to others, you will be surprised by the good that will follow and the experience you gain. One day, when the war is over, I will go back to school and study so that I can become a fully qualified surgeon. But for now, my people need me and I must respond.

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