International

A house of healing in Turkey for those wounded in Syria

Those who need long-term care in Syria's bloody conflict find respite in this dusty Turkish town

REYHANLI, Turkey — The first missile struck when Najeebeh Ahmed Hussein was clearing dishes from breakfast. The debris had barely settled when the second one hit and she found herself running from her village home on al-Zawya Mountain in northern Syria, her 5-year-old son bleeding in her arms, paralyzed from the waist down by shrapnel.

She fled to a neighboring village, Kansafra.

“Then the planes came and bombed that village,” Hussein said.

The rest of her travels that hot day in early September were difficult for her to recount — the car that took her to a third village, the field-hospital ambulance that appeared, presumably called in by someone in a rebel-controlled area, and then the 60-mile drive to the Turkish border, where instead of a passport, all she could present was an injured child.

Another ambulance, this one Turkish, rushed them to a hospital. And once it became clear that her son’s injuries would require long-term care, she embarked on yet another transfer and arrived at Dar al-Istshfaa, a haven for those wounded in Syria’s deadly civil conflict between rebel forces and those of President Bashar al-Assad.

With a name that roughly translates as “house of healing,” the Dar al-Istshfaa Syrian Medical Center sits here in this dusty Turkish border town, a few hundred meters from the Syrian border and next to a meandering mini-mountain of exposed rock and scraggly golden grass, a landmark that serves as a boundary between the two nations.

Founded by the Paris-based Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organizations (UOSSM), an aid organization created by Syrian physicians from Europe, the U.S., Canada and other Middle Eastern countries, Dar al-Istshfaa was designed to provide free medical care to all Syrians, regardless of religion or politics.

The three-story blue-and-white concrete building is the UOSSM’s largest postoperative recovery center in Turkey, with capacity for 80 patients. It was the first facility of its kind in any of Syria’s neighboring states, opening its doors in July of 2012.

Since then, it has served more than 10,000 people whose stays lasted at least a week, along with 700 long-term patients who remained for several months.

The lives not measured

Yasir Alsyed volunteers as the executive manager of the Dar Al Istshfaa Syrian Medical Center in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli.
Yasir Alsyed volunteers as the executive manager of the Dar al-Istshfaa Syrian Medical Center in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli.
KJ Dakin for Al Jazeera America

Most of the patients, if not all, are supporters of the revolution who would be killed if they entered one of the hospitals run by the Assad regime, said Yasir Alsyed, the center’s executive manager, who stressed that he welcomes all wounded — loyalist or rebel.

“I have no problem with anyone coming here,” he said. "We are here to help anybody.”

The war has continued for two and a half years now, with a United Nations count in July of more than 100,000 dead. This week a British-based nonprofit, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, put the death toll at 115,000.

The lives not measured by that figure are those who survive their initial injuries and must learn to live without limbs or eyes, with brain damage or with spinal injuries that leave them paralyzed. They straggle across borders in search of critical medical care that is unavailable at home. Often they arrive with festering wounds and paralyzed or amputated limbs.

Rebel fighter Mustafa Ghonaimi arrived here with a spinal injury in August.

Ghonaimi retrieved injured comrades from the field as a member of the Free Syrian Army.

“I rescue both the fighters and the dead. I don’t leave anyone,” he said.

After 10 days of intensive physiotherapy, he went from being unable to stand to taking walks around the room, supported by his physiotherapist and a comrade.

Unlike many of the long-term patients, he has a chance at a nearly full recovery, and he believes he still has a role in the conflict.

“I have to go back to Syria to continue fighting because there is still a war in Syria. We have not finished yet,” Ghonaimi said.

A staff of refugees

Fuazia Alyusif is one of the few women at the center, injured when she went out to water a thirsty tree and a bomb fell.
Fuazia Alyusif is one of the few women at the center, injured when she went out to water a thirsty tree and a bomb fell.
KJ Dakin for Al Jazeera America

Fuazia Alyusif is one of only three women at the center. (Ten to 15 percent of the center’s patients are women and children.) She was injured outside her home six months ago.

“I was watering the tree because it was thirsty,'' she said, "and a missile hit the wall next to me.”

Her left arm now ends midway to her elbow, and she cannot walk because of the severe fracture in her left femur. When she was treated in Syria, there were no antibiotics, and her limbs began to swell. She made it to Dar al-Istshfaa in August and is healing, she said.

The center’s approximately 45 staff members are all refugees. There are seven doctors, two pharmacists and one psychologist, as well as several physiotherapists, nurses and other specialists.

Dr. Ahmed Shareef was halfway through a five-year hospital residency in orthopedic surgery in Damascus when the revolution began. A supporter of the peaceful protests, he said he was threatened by government forces.

“I was threatened to be arrested,'' he said. "They arrested two of my best friends and killed them in jail.”

When the armed fighting began, the hospital was flooded with wounded civilians, protesters and fighters.

“Any man who came into the hospital would be executed in the hospital,” Shareef said, “any man.”

War and hunt for funds

Then government soldiers began to bring in prisoners — “prisoners who had been tortured,” Shareef said.

However, the doctors were not allowed to perform necessary surgeries, and if the prisoners needed drugs, they were rationed only enough for a single day. Then they were taken back.

“I had to leave,” Shareef said.

Last month the U.N. released a special report that said both sides had committed war crimes but that accused the Syrian government forces of targeting hospitals, field hospitals and medical personnel as well as preventing the injured from receiving treatment and using hospitals as centers for torture. The report also documented evidence that opposition forces attacked hospitals, but to a much lesser degree.

No one knows which side will win or when the war will end, but the daily hunt for funds will go on as long as the war does.

The cost of running Dar al-Istshfaa averages $75,000 per month. The greatest toll on its budget is medication, particularly the wide spectrum of painkillers the center goes through.

If there is a supply shortage, they must turn patients away, said head nurse Maisaa Ahmed.

While patients and staff are focused on the now, questions of the future are met with a prevailing sense of uncertainty. Some want to go home, but their homes are rubble. Some want to get back in the fight but are no longer able. Some want to emigrate but have little hope of doing so because of poverty and complicated refugee policies. All hope the war will be over tomorrow.

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