Safe Zone

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The political becomes personal for one student, and a medical clinic for Syrian civilians is born.

Syrian civilians live in constant fear, as a brutal civil war rages around them. Too much has been lost to five years of missiles, barrel bombs and heavy artillery.

The healthcare system, the one institution that should be exempt from attack, has become a political pawn. The result—in just five years, Syrian life expectancy has dropped by two decades.

Mohammed Willis ’18 wasn’t thinking about the Syrian healthcare system last summer when he met his father, an internally displaced Syrian refugee, for the first time.

Until then, Willis, who was born and raised in the United States, had spoken to his father monthly on the phone. When he found out his father had remarried and had five children, Willis began sending money to help pay for his half-sister’s education.

An economics major with an aptitude for languages (Willis will study Russian in Georgia this summer and previously studied Arabic in Jordan on a U.S. State Department critical language scholarship), his curiosity about his Syrian family grew, until he finally arranged to meet them.

Midway through the visit, Willis learned that his uncle’s leg had been torn off by shrapnel during a bombing in Aleppo, the site of intense attacks. His cousin, home from medical school, was able to save her father’s life—he was among the few lucky ones.

Before the war, Syria’s healthcare system was comparable to that of Turkey and China. Western, non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes, comprised the country’s disease burden, and average life expectancy was 76—the same as in the United States.

International law dictates that areas containing hospitals are designated safe zones and “should not be the object of military operations,” but the Assad regime, its allies and the so-called Islamic State (ISIS) have systematically targeted hospitals and physicians, using access to healthcare as a weapon.

About 95 percent of Aleppo’s doctors have either fled or been killed, according to a 2015 report by the NGO Physicians for Human Rights. The group estimates that less than half of Syria’s public hospitals are fully functioning, and the majority of hospitals have been destroyed in the areas of the country not controlled by government forces.

“ISIS killed everyone at a hospital run by Doctors Without Borders, and the Syrian government and their Russian allies bomb hospitals,” Willis says. “Whenever the Red Cross, Red Crescent or United Nations donate medicine without physically taking it to the place they’re donating it to, the government will take it and give it to the army.”

When Willis found out his cousin had decided to stay in the country and take care of civilians affected by the Syrian civil war, he conceived of a plan to open a clinic in Aleppo where she and others could practice under sanitary, functional conditions.

(l-r) Harrison Wagener ’18, Mohammed Willis ’18 and Marisa Wilson ’18

(l-r) Harrison Wagener ’18, Mohammed Willis ’18 and Marisa Wilson ’18

Willis found support for his plan at Davidson, where he created Davidson Syrian Medical Outreach (DSMO). He enlisted the help of friends, including Harrison Wagener ’18 and Marisa Wilson ’18, who brought essential skills to the new organization.

The students say the organization tapped into frustration with a brand of activism that more often leads to navel gazing than to tangible results.

“I learned it is a lot easier for me to sit back and talk about situations like what’s happening in Syria,” Wagener says. “It is easy to analyze, but what people in these situation really need is active help. Doing something that actively helps people, although more difficult, is more worthwhile.” 

“Getting involved with Davidson Syrian Medical Outreach gave me an opportunity to effect real change,” Wilson says.

More than 40 students attended the group’s first meeting, and a majority of them remained involved as the group raised funds for the clinic through outreach and a CrowdRise website.

After months of preparation, the clinic launched in April.

Willis’ cousin secured the site for the clinic and bought the actual physical equipment, like drills and scalpels, from a doctor who was fleeing for Turkey. DSMO funds were used to buy medicine and other supplies for the people of Aleppo.

A generator was high on the clinic’s list of priority equipment. 

“Electricity was not great in Syria before the war—you typically had it only a couple of hours a day,” Willis says. “When doctors don’t have electricity, they operate using the lights from their cell phones.”

Willis notes that anesthesia is a luxury, both rare and expensive. “Pretty much no one has it in Syria at this point,” he says. A 2014 report by the NGO Save the Children chronicles accounts of patients opting to be knocked out with metal bars before surgery.

Now that the clinic is functional, DSMO has turned its attention to fundraising for the Syrian-American Medical Society, an organization that supports doctors inside Syria. Additionally, some of the funds will be used by DSMO member Adam Morin ’18 to help refugees at the Zaatari camp in Jordan. Morin will travel there this summer through a Dean Rusk grant.

Willis created a video that details the trials of civilians in Syria; it was shown on campus as part of the fundraising effort for Zaatari refugees. At once personal, compelling and matter-of-fact in its presentation, the piece provides a vehicle for the stories of individuals who have been written off as casualties to just another war in the Middle East.

The video opens with a little boy riding the kind of toddler carousel that you might find in an American mall. He is Willis’ two-year-old half-brother.

Willis, as narrator, talks of family ties, the rationale that can lead to entrenchment and violence when those ties become the walls behind which people hide in fear of the other.

“My little half-brother doesn’t really have a future,” Willis says. “My siblings don’t have any concept of going to college, getting a good job, as something to look forward to in life.”

Willis and the students who’ve been touched by his family’s story and the plight of Syrian civilians like them understand the depth of the problems Syrians face and the limits of their own ability to help. They say no self-congratulations are in order. More than anything, they hope to put a face on collective tragedy, and in doing so, inspire action.

“I would urge people to look past statistics and see the real people behind those numbers,” Marisa Wilson says. “I hope that people will not just talk about the issues, but act, and act in a way that will best assist the people who are directly affected.”

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About Author

Lisa A. Patterson

Lisa Patterson is editor of the Davidson Journal. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Ohio University, and holds master’s degrees in English and public health.

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