In Northern Syria, Destruction and Displacement Confront Health Workers

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By Noah Smith

Syria’s brutal civil war, which began in 2011 and has resulted in at least 400,000 deaths along with more than 11 million total refugees, according to UN Refugee Agency, entered an unexpected new phase earlier this month following the sudden withdrawal of U.S. troops from northeastern Syria — leaving thousands of Syrian Kurds without access to basic necessities.

The lack of a U.S. military presence has meant a new humanitarian crisis in the region, as thousands of Kurds have fled, in an attempt to escape Turkish bombing campaigns and militias aligned with the neighboring state.

According to Kurdistan Save The Children’s Sara Rashid, who has spent 6 years in Iraq with the NGO, the capacity for health care providers to treat impacted individuals has been drastically reduced, at a time when these latest refugees remain in need of food and medicines.

“Some facilities (in northeastern Syria) are still working, but their stock has completely run out. They have stressed the need for medical equipment, supplies, and medications,” Rashid told Direct Relief from Sulaymaniyah in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq. “And blood. They need a lot of blood.”

Adding to the humanitarian relief challenge is the relative lack of aid groups on the ground during this latest round of violence.

“Usually you have a crisis, and you have everyone on the ground, such as UN agencies, and you get everyone helping. Here, the service provision for the impacted area is completely lacking,” said Rashid, who added that coordinating the delivery of supplies with the few partners they do have, such as the Kurdish Red Crescent, is extremely difficult due to the constantly shifting battlefields.

“We’re trying to fill in what the UN does,” she said.

A cease-fire was announced last Tuesday, but a senior Turkish commander said, via Twitter, that Turkey and its allies have continued to “launch attacks.” Rashid said her group is preparing for up to 45,000 refugees coming to Dahuk, Sulaymaniyah, and Erbil in Iraqi Kurdistan—a region that has dealt with its own hefty share of challenges, ranging from budgetary disputes with the Baghdad government as well as hosting hundreds of thousands of internally displaced refugees, according to the UN Migration Agency.

“It’s not like people go into Germany. They’re coming to the Kurdistan region of Iraq. You don’t have the infrastructure in place,” she said, while also referencing the lack of teachers and health care providers for incoming refugees.

Direct Relief sent shipments of requested medicines and medical supplies throughout the week to Kurdistan Save The Children, including Emergency Medical Backpacks, for use in Syria and Iraq.

Reflecting the highly fragmented nature of the conflict, a representative from the Syrian American Medical Society, mainly in northwest Syria, said their operations have not been impacted by the most recent Turkish offensive, but that the 2,000 health care providers they support are continuing to respond to the hundreds of thousands of people in the area who have been displaced this year, as well as those injured by the ongoing conflict are facing chronic conditions.

“We’ve seen more and more people living with disabilities with no access to the care they need,” said Lobna Hassairi, media and communications manager for the Syrian American Medical Society. “Women are afraid to go to hospitals,” she said, as a result of their systematic targeting.

Both Hassairi and Rashid said that their partners continue to treat injured civilians and decried the targeting of hospitals and civilians, which has taken place throughout the civil war. They both expressed grave concerns about the future.

“They (displaced people) have nowhere to go” said Hassairi.

“These people don’t have a place to run to,” said Rashid. “Running is in another context. If you leave your home, you are leaving it free for other people to take over. Honestly, I don’t know what’s gong to happen,” said Rashid, who said her group was in the midst of planning a three year cancer initiative before this month’s offensive began.

“Now it’s hard to plan for three days,” she said, even as she knows that the recovery from this conflict, will require a long view.

“No one thinking about this, but we’re going to have to deal with trauma. We’re still dealing with the traumatized children who had to leave their homes because of ISIS.”