As Syria loses its doctors, Syrian-Americans fill the gap

As winter beckons, the Syrian crisis will only get worse

By Nicholas Nehamas

Dead civilians lie on the ground after heavy government shelling in Aleppo. (Reuters)

More than 30,000 people have been killed since the Syrian uprising began 19 months ago, and hundreds of thousands have fled their homes. As the violence spills over into neighboring Lebanon, a group of Syrian-American doctors are helping in any way they can.

The Syrian-American Medical Society (SAMS) has dedicated itself to saving civilian lives in Syria, according to Tarek Kteleh, a rheumatologist who lives in Indiana. Kteleh is one of SAMS’s 400 active members and sits on the group’s board of directors.

“In the last few months,” Kteleh tells Latitude News, “more than 100 of our doctors have visited the refugee camps in both Jordan and Turkey. A few of our brave doctors even went inside Syria to help in the field hospitals and do surgeries on the wounded.”

The Ohio-based non-profit is also saving lives through material support. SAMS trains Syrian doctors in advanced trauma life support and ships medical supplies like IVs and stretchers to Syria. The organization is also trying to raise money to purchase ambulances and ship them to field hospitals inside Syria.

Syrians need the help. In addition to the bloodshed, the government has been targeting doctors, and public hospitals have been arresting wounded people they suspect of sympathizing with the rebels.

“People will not even send their wounded to the hospitals anymore, and the regime won’t let the Red Cross in,” says Kteleh. “I have never heard of anything like this.”

With winter on the way, Kteleh fears the worst.

“There is no electricity, no bread, no medicine. How will they live?” he asks. “The Syrian winter is a harsh one, very cold and rainy.”

The media’s blind spot

Kteleh, who moved here from Damascus 10 years ago, thinks the U.S government should be doing more, although he made it clear that this view is his own and does not in any way represent SAMS, a non-political organization.

“From my perspective, I would expect America to be more involved,” he says. “It’s not in their interest to see a Syria run by Iran. If you support the people on the ground, they will win the battle. If you cannot support them directly, as in Libya, then give them equipment.”

In military terms, the rebels are simply outmatched.

Dr. Tarek Kteleh and his children outside their home in Muncie, Indiana.

“They got guns, the regime started using tanks,” he says. “They got anti-tank weapons, now the regime is using airplanes, and no one is giving them missiles like Stingers to fight back. The bombs are destroying civilian areas. So many children have been buried in the ground by this regime and by its ‘axis of evil': Russia, China and Iran.”

In Kteleh’s mind, another culprit deserves censure too: the American media, which he says is covering the wider political implications of the Syrian crisis without focusing on the plight of its people.

Reporting from inside Syria is difficult and dangerous: 23 journalists have been killed in the past year. Both the rebels and the Assad regime target reporters they perceive as hostile. And although more foreign journalists are working in areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army, it’s nearly impossible to verify information coming out of the country.

Despite the obstacles, Kteleh says more live reporting from Syria might force Americans to come to terms with what’s happening on the ground and push President Obama to intervene.

“I want Americans watching TV to see people on the street in Aleppo or Damascus begging for intervention,” he explains. “Relatively speaking, the Arab press is doing a much better job.”

Kteleh says Syrian-Americans are doing what they can, but the conflict in their homeland has even split SAMS: until the summer of 2011, the non-profit had two Assad supporters on its board. The pro-regime directors only resigned after SAMS voted to send its first relief mission to a refugee camp in Turkey.

Now the organization is moving forward as one, and Kteleh wants people to understand it’s about more than Syria.

“Even if these people were in Argentina or the Netherlands or China, I would try to do something,” he says. “This is a humanitarian crisis, beyond all borders. It’s a question of justice. And we need help.”