Ohioans Return To Home Country On Medical Mission

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A damaged armored vehicle belonging to the Syrian army comes to rest in a street in Homs earlier this year.(Photo: Flickr)
A damaged armored vehicle belonging to the Syrian army comes to rest in a street in Homs earlier this year.(Photo: Flickr)

Some Ohio medical professionals recently put their training to the test in the middle of one of the world’s hottest war zones: Syria.

Fares Raslan came to the United States from Syria in 23 years ago to pursue his studies in anesthesiology. Life’s been good to him over here. He and his wife Lila raised a family and have a nice house in suburban Cleveland.

It’s a sharp contrast to life back in Syria — a country in the grip of a civil war, as rebels try to topple the government of president Bashar al-Assad. After televised reports of bloody violence in the streets, the world medical community rallied its support.

We knew about other groups that were going. We were watching on the news that there were French nationals that were operating in Syria. They were on CNN on Anderson Cooper.

A local surgeon named Mohammed saw those same reports. Mohammed won’t give his full name for fear of repercussions against his family back in Syria, but he can’t hide the passion that he felt, watching the horrific images.

It just stirred in us a flame that we need to do something.

They connected with a Canadian physician who had made numerous medical visits to Syria himself, and was recruiting others to do the same.

The two Clevelanders soon found themselves in a refugee camp along the Syrian border in Turkey. There was plenty of work to do there, but the call of their country was stronger.

Still, the danger of entering an active war zone gave them pause, until they saw others going in.

“We heard that the Egyptian team left a few days ago; the Saudi team went inside today; a surgeon from Alabama was inside, along with another surgeon from Utah,” Raslan says. And him and I were just looking at each other, you know? And then, we saw the orphan.”

“We saw this little boy, sitting, and they told us that he lost all his family, and there’s nobody to take care of him,” Mohammed remembers.

It just touched something in you that — you need to do something.

FARES RASLAN: That was the tipping point for both of us. He said, “I don’t know about you, but I’m going in.”

The poignancy of that story isn’t lost on Dr. Marisa Herran.

“The mantra that should move us is to help children,” Herran says.

A pediatric specialist at Case Western Reserve University, Herran has tended to the needs of children in disaster zones ranging from Darfur to Kosovo, and she’s seen a shift on the battle front

Decades ago, wars used to be between factions and armies — not anymore. Now, the civilians are more affected than even the armed forces.

Lately, she’s been following events in Syria – and is all too aware of the dangers medical professionals can face in the modern world of warfare.

“The Red Cross is not a protection anymore — just the opposite. Health workers are easy targets,” Herran says.

Crossing the Turkish border into Syria, Fares Raslan and Mohammed set-up shop in a little town called al-Dana where the medical facilities were woefully inadequate

They were dropping patients by the dozens. They throw them on the floor, and then they go to get another group in a pick-up truck. The hospital equipment is very, very primitive. When I left Syria in the late 80s, it’s still the same, same equipment — probably worse, now.

“The last day was the most troubling, because we had 60-70 patients within about 10 hours,” says Mohammed. “It was really overwhelming. We were just jumping from one patient to another, to see who needed the most help.”

But for all the chaos in the operating room and the danger just outside the hospital, Fares Raslan says his fear vanished quickly.

“You are a target. But, when you look around, you see the ladies cleaning blood off the floor, the kids running in and out, all the local doctors are around you — you feel like you’re in a big community here.”

I didn’t see anybody who had any sign of fear. This is what really lifted me up.

The two men are back, safe at home. They can now chuckle at the memories of barely dodging a bomb that fell from the skies. And they are still full of wonder at the spirit of their people in the face of adversity. Fares Raslan says he’s making arrangements to return in January.

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