The 'Syrian American Medical Society': Healing War Torn Lives
Two weeks ago, I became a witness to an unexpected, disturbing, and tragic accident that took the life of a woman right before my very eyes. My immediate response was to help as I watched the circumstances that led up to this woman’s death unfold. Thereafter, I stayed with her until the medics and police arrived -- each trained professional and ray of hope even more proficient, deliberate, and kind than the next. Unfortunately, the realities of the matter overcame all of the skill and concern provided.
Later that evening, a police officer showed up at my door in search of a formal statement about the incident. In an effort to comfort me - so shaken was I by the entire event - he remarked, “We live in a nation, and definitely a community, where we rarely see such horror, thankfully.”
It was a statement that sobered me to the good fortune I (and so many others) take for granted in calling the United States our home. It also redirected my thoughts to the recent interview that I did with Dr. Ahmad Tarakji, whose responsibilities as the President of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), place him and his team in mind-numbing, catastrophic situations everyday.
The trauma and challenges Dr. Tarakji and SAMS face, regularly, in an effort to ease the pain and suffering as well as heal the bodies and souls of a country that continues to be ravaged by violence, savagery, and war are difficult to fully comprehend. But Dr. Tarakji offers his best effort in helping to explain what he and SAMS have been doing to bring healing and humanitarian relief to a region where sudden death isn’t a “fleeting memory to get over” but a unending reality to live with.
Share your name and your title at the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).
Dr. Ahmad Tarakji, SAMS President
Explain the focus of SAMS.
SAMS is a nonpolitical, nonprofit medical relief organization that is working on the front lines of crisis relief in Syria and neighboring countries to alleviate suffering and save lives. SAMS proudly provides medical care and treatment to every patient in need.
Explain how you have helped the Syrian people up-to-now.
In 2015, SAMS reached over 2.6 million Syrians, 2.3 million inside Syria and 320,000 refugees in Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon. SAMS supports over 100 medical facilities and 1,700 medical personnel inside Syria. Our medical programs continue to expand to provide Syrians with specialized treatment, such as reproductive health, dialysis, gastrointestinal endoscopy, and physical therapy.
In addition, SAMS provides funds for desperately needed medical missions, medical education (including midwifery, nursing, and medical technicians), the spearheading of telemedicine strategies, the creation of scholarships for Syrian students enrolled in the Sarajevo School of Science and Technology (SSST), the reinforcement of hospitals for the safety of our doctor, and the stabilization of communities in Syria. SAMS recently advised Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health to launch a scholarship to support up to two individuals who have been displaced as a result of the conflict in Syria. We advocate for the protection of civilian and medical neutrality. SAMS has contributed, along with our partners, to writing follow up recommendations to the policymakers based on the humanitarian items in the UNSC resolutions.
Why is your organization needed over others?
SAMS has the unique position of being considered both a larger international NGO and a local Syrian NGO. Our vast networks on the ground have allowed us to reach vulnerable populations and report on the real situations on the ground. SAMS is one of the most-trusted local Syrian NGOs working on the ground, both inside Syria and in refugee-host countries including Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Greece.
With all of the media coverage regarding the crisis in Syria, please share some insights, facts or realities being overlooked.
Throughout the crisis, medical personnel and facilities have been attacked as a tool of war. In an effort to provide both patients and health workers with needed security, SAMS has invested in the reconstruction and transfer of standard medical facilities to underground structures—in basements, fortified structures, and even caves.
Share devastating examples of 'need' that my readers will relate to.
SAMS highlights many personal accounts on the homepage of our website under ‘Stories from the Field.’ We also produced Syrian Medical Voices from the Ground: The Ordeal of Syria’s Healthcare Professionals. All of these stories are heartbreaking and devastating.
One example: A pregnant woman in labor arrived to a SAMS-supported OBGYN clinic in Idlib, Syria at 8pm local time. Her condition was extremely critical. She suffered from low blood pressure and was unconscious. Her unborn baby was in a critical condition as well. Immediately, our dedicated medical personnel operated on the patient to stabilize her condition and save her child. The newborn was immediately put in an incubator. We are happy to share that the mother and her child were discharged the next day once their conditions stabilized and our medical personnel conducted all the necessary tests.
What's Syria's biggest challenge today, as you see it? What is SAMS in relationship to this.
We believe the biggest challenge is the lack of a real concerted effort to find a solution to end the crisis. Policy change has been limited and there has been very little change in the situation on the ground, despite global awareness and condemnation of the atrocities in Syria. As the crisis enters its sixth year, we see no clear end in sight. SAMS is not involved in the political bargaining going on by external parties; all we can do is provide medical relief to the millions of men, women, and children who are the victims of unbelievable atrocities every day.
Discuss the SAMS Foundation, including some of the the contributions it has made so that readers everywhere can realize the critical nature of this foundation.
The conflict in Syria has taken a significant toll on Syrian men, women, and children. Too many families have lost loved ones and endured unimaginable violence. In 2015, SAMS delivered 24,318 babies inside Syria. By the end of October, 2016, SAMS had already delivered more than 20,000 infants. We are proud of their reproductive health and pediatric services that we provide for women and children - they are the most affected by the crisis in Syria.
The Syrian crisis has led not only to physical wounds, but also to psychological wounds. Millions of Syrians have been witness to widespread destruction, violence, and loss. SAMS physicians estimate that most of the Syrian population is suffering from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder, shock, or depression. In response to this mental health epidemic, SAMS supports psychosocial programming that facilitates therapeutic healing strategies and mental wellbeing. Additionally, SAMS provides psychosocial sessions to support women in dealing with domestic violence issues, both inside Syria and in Jordan and Lebanon.
In response to the crisis and forceful displacement like Aleppo, SAMS led a comprehensive humanitarian and advocacy response plan along with our partners in UN and WHO. For Aleppo we allocated and supported 5 hospitals to assess and treat patients, as well as many mobile clinics and point of care centers that provided necessary medical and psychosocial support.
How much money does it cost to run SAMS? What percentage of the SAMS Foundation funds are dedicated to actually aiding the Syrian people?
Last year (in 2015) we spent over $21 million through our programs and we nearly doubled the number of beneficiaries we were able to support (from 1.3 million in 2014 to 2.3 million). We have one of the lowest overheads of any non-governmental organization - 96 cents of every dollar donated went directly into our programs in 2015.
How much money did the SAMS Foundation raise in 2015?
In 2015, SAMS raised over $8 million in donations, $14 million in grants, and $2.3 million in gift-in-kind (often medical equipment and medications).
Explain why the citizens of the United States should help Syria when we have so many of our own problems to deal with at this point.
This should not be an either-or situation. Our shared humanity calls on us to care for our fellow humans, whether here in the United States or beyond. As an organization of American doctors, we pride ourselves on the work we do both in our Syrian homeland and in our adoptive country of the United States. Many of our members volunteer their clinics to provide free care for needy citizens in the US. We strive to care for any and all people in need and know that the generous citizens of America feel the same.
Suggest where and how U.S. citizens can help that will make the most difference for the Syrian people beyond the obvious donations.
Choosing local Syrian organizations, like SAMS, to donate to or volunteer with is a great way to reach Syrian men, women, and children, and provide medical support to those in need. There are also many organizations that support Syrians through avenues other than medical relief; HuffPo recently compiled this list - and we encourage everyone to find an organization whose work they support. Above all, raising awareness of the issue is the most important thing we can do to show Syrians that they have not been forgotten.
When all is said and done, how do you want to be remembered?
We at SAMS hope to be remembered for the lives we’ve saved and the lives we have changed. We hope to continue to provide a beacon of hope for Syrians in need. We proudly support the next generation of Syria and strive to provide those in need with the dignified medical care they need and deserve to live a healthy life. We want to be remembered for healing Syria to the statement of Saving lives.
It is my belief that the “life” and “death” of another human being is always personal, whether in your own backyard or a land far away. The obligation to 'help' rises above any differences and all excuses. That’s a truth we need to cling to as a species and global community because once we give it up, we will surely go extinct.
Many thanks to Dr. Ahmad Tarakji and the Syrian American Medical Society for making this interview possible