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A Doctor’s Duty Is Not Disrupted by War

Neither the Syrian war nor the severe restrictions of exile in Lebanon could keep Dr. Ibrahim al-Masri from his work. The Syrian doctor, now resettled in Canada, tells his story of fighting for the rights and health of refugees.

Written by Dr. Ibrahim al-Masri Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
A Syrian doctor examines a newborn baby at a maternity clinic in Douma, on the outskirts of Damascus, during an awareness campaign by the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) in June 2017. AFP/ABDULMONAM EASSA

When the protests started in Damascus in March 2011, I was in the fourth year of my residency as a pulmonology specialist at Damascus University and had my own medical practice in the city.

The protests took me by surprise, but they soon spread throughout the country, and a group of young people in Daraa announced the start of the Syrian revolution.

When we saw the reports that many civilians had been injured and killed, my medical colleagues started discussing what we should do. When would the crisis spread to our city? Did we have enough basic emergency medical supplies?

I was adamant that we should treat everybody regardless of their political views. Everyone has the right to get medical treatment.

A month later, three civilians were killed during a protest near our Damascus suburb. My friends and I rushed to the scene immediately to help the wounded. That was our role – the war didn’t take that away.

The following year, in April 2012, I was detained by Syrian air force intelligence along with 15 other medical fieldworkers. I faced many types of physical and emotional torture during my four months in detention.

Even after I was released, life was difficult. I was fired from my residency program and couldn’t travel outside Damascus. Some of my friends were killed, others were arrested and some traveled abroad.

In late 2012, I fled to Lebanon. I tried to restart my career, but as a Syrian refugee I was forbidden from working. Like other Syrian doctors in Lebanon, I couldn’t get a work permit or continue my education and knew that I could lose my residency at any moment and be forced to leave the country.

I tried to work as a volunteer at a Lebanese hospital, but they told me I needed a medical license, which was prohibitively expensive, and a work permit, which the labor ministry refused to give me. Some Syrian refugee activists had a better proposal – there are so many refugees in Lebanon without any medical services, why didn’t I help them?

So I decided to set up a clinic for refugees in Lebanon with two other Syrian doctors. At first, we had no medication, nurses or salaries. But the clinic grew. We received some funding from a Kuwaiti charity, some small Syrian expatriate groups and later the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). We established a polyclinic, physiotherapy center and a psychosocial program, among others. We built a 75-bed post-operation center, which treated more than 1,300 wounded Syrians in two years.

As the manager of the center, I got to know almost all of these patients and learned their medical, social, psychological and emotional histories. I remember every one of their stories.

But the one that has influenced me the most was that of a 21-year-old called Obada from Eastern Ghouta. He lost both of his legs, an arm and both of his eyes in a land-mine explosion. Yet he was always optimistic. Even though he had no training, he gave psychosocial support to the other patients. After he was discharged, he returned to visit the patients every week, in between teaching young children in the camp where he lived. He always entered the center walking tall with his prosthetic limbs, and urged the other wounded Syrians to keep active.

In 2016, we were finally able to become fully licensed by the Lebanese government as an NGO called Multi Aid Programs (MAPS). Our health program has treated more than 300,000 patients, while our relief and education programs have helped thousands of others.

Over four and a half years, I met many Lebanese and U.N. officials as part of my work with SAMS and MAPS. We continually advocated for Syrian refugees in Lebanon, explaining that with only around 20 percent of refugees having valid residency permits, many have little access to health services. We asked the minister of health and the president of the physicians’ syndicate in Lebanon to allow Syrian doctors to work on a temporary and limited permit to treat refugees, under the supervision of the Lebanese government and their regulations, but to no avail.

Because of my work with refugees, I was detained for two weeks in 2013 in Lebanon. I faced many questions about my work, including requests for the names of my coworkers and patients.

Every time I applied for residency in Lebanon, it took about six months of negotiations. Then in June 2016 my documents were held by General Security [a Lebanese intelligence agency], which told me I would get my passport back only if I traveled outside of Lebanon. Even though I was invited to attend many international meetings, I was afraid that if I left Lebanon I would not be allowed to return. Eventually, one of my relatives helped me to get a private sponsor for resettlement in Canada.

I arrived in Canada with my wife and son in June. Although newcomers are welcome here and I at last have my rights, I have such a long way to go to be recognized as a doctor.

But I still hope to complete my residency here and return to Syria one day soon, to complete my dream where it began.

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