Syria's first responders need our help

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Just opposite the stretchers, syringes were stacked from floor to ceiling in several rows, 250 to a box, 10 boxes per crate. Individual syringes are small, of course, so this cache clearly contained many thousands – the vast majority of which will be used to treat conflict-related injuries. I asked Dr. Najjar if he could guess at how long this supply might last, and he told me they would all be used in less than a month.
Less than a month. And in just one small region of Syria.

Dr. Najjar is himself a Syrian refugee who left the country after being imprisoned for treating victims on both sides of the war. He now toils nonstop to get medical supplies into Syria, working out of several countries in the region. But he worries that his project and similar ones barely begin to meet the overwhelming needs. He’s a sweet man with a gentle sense of humor, and it was clear from his face that he rarely slept.

As we toured his improvised warehouse, Dr. Najjar talked to us about the “crime” of providing impartial medical services inside Syria; about the people who die not just from injuries but because of a lack of surgical equipment, medication, and access to care; about how, in conflict situations, there comes a time when more people are killed by untreated medical conditions than by violence. Syria is not there yet, he told us, but it will happen eventually. He estimated that in Aleppo there are just 60 doctors for 2 million people, though my colleagues and I have heard even lower estimates.

Doctors are fleeing Syria in droves, leaving behind an embattled population that desperately needs their skills. Many of these doctors, having spent a year or two providing free services inside the country, simply need to make money elsewhere to support themselves and their families. Some go back and forth, working in Syria for as long as their finances allow and then leaving when they must. Financial support, or even modest salaries, would allow many of them to remain in the country – even in the more insecure areas. But none exists. And so they circulate in and out, with never enough of them to fill the need. As Dr. Najjar tells us, food is essential, but it’s not much use to a dead person.

We don’t know how many lives might have been saved over the past two years if there had been more doctors and medical equipment available for Syrians. Every American and Western agency has their hands full managing the Syrian emergency, and justifiably so. But we can’t do everything on our own, so we must empower Syrians like Dr. Najjar, who are willing to provide lifesaving aid in a responsible way. Their good deeds may go unrecognized by posterity, but they surely deserve our support in the here and now.

Grisgraber is a senior advocate for Refugees International, a non-profit organization that works to end displacement crises worldwide and accepts no government or U.N. funding.