True heroes are working to help refugees in Syrian conflict

June 16, 2013 

The war in Syria is brutal and complex. Who the “good guys” are is not obvious. Recently, however, near the Syrian border, I happened upon such people.

I was in Turkey for a few weeks, much of it in tourist destinations such as Istanbul and Cappadocia.

Touristic Turkey is wonderful, but I intentionally ditched these popular sites looking for something more authentic. I landed in Urfa, a fascinating city without tourists near Syria.

At my guesthouse in Urfa’s old town, I was told doctors staying there worked at a refugee camp on the Syrian border at Akcakale. The Syrians shelled this camp in October. Several people were killed, and Turkey and Syria edged toward possible conflict. The Syrians apologized, and the Americans put in Patriot missiles nearby. While the situation had stabilized, working at this camp still impressed me.

As we visitors hung out in the hostel’s courtyard, I chatted with the group, mentioning that I’d worked with refugees — though hardly doing the heavy lifting they were doing near a war zone. They were modest and engaging.

The next day, over dinner, the group went over plans to relocate to Akcakale. I offered to move from the table where they were sitting, but they told me “Cheers” for working with refugees and instructed me to stay.

The group was almost cinematically photogenic. The lead organizer was a Russell Crowe look-alike with a few days of stubble accenting his look of someone comfortable in a war zone. There was a slender elegant African man, fluent in English, and an American working intently on his computer.

There were the young doctors themselves, mostly European women. And then there were their Arab helpers, one seemingly right off an American campus with English rivaling mine.

I respected their work and found them friendly and intriguing, so I asked Yana, one of the women working at the camp, if I might take their picture. She thought a bit and said, “Perhaps not.”

I told her I understood, but I didn’t, not at all.

“We’re preparing to go undercover into Syria to set up a clinic,” Yana explained. “The doctors might not be targeted,” though they were clearly putting their lives at risk. However, their Arab helpers “might be in danger if their photographs are circulated.”

I paused. These folks I’d spent days around who could have comfortable medical practices elsewhere were about to risk their lives to save others. It was powerful.

The next day, I took a tour offered by the guesthouse. Along the way, I asked Yusef, the driver, if we could see the Akcakale refugee camp. He agreed.

As we approached Syria, the rows upon rows of refugees’ tents, where 28,000 Syrians are housed cheek by jowl, came into view.

Yusef asked, “Enter?” These camps are not tourist sites. People have died here.

Not expecting to get near, I still said, “Okay.”

Through Yusef’s cajoling, we were able to enter the camp’s armed main gate to where refugees were being processed. I walked around, taking in the feel of the place among families that just arrived from a bloody war. I got a sense of what some of my former refugee students in Tacoma lived through.

Like most Westerners, I have a jaundiced view of the Assad regime. Most Turks concur. However, I also met a secular Turkish/Syrian guide. As a Shia, he was supportive of Assad and concerned that radicals among the rebels would prevail.

Regardless of Syrian complexities and the international proxy politics playing out there, what Doctors Without Borders, the organization behind the people I met, is doing in this embattled country is extraordinary. Assad will not allow this group to help with medicine in places his regime controls. Therefore, the clinics DWB (or, in its original French, Medicins sans Frontieres) establishes are in rebel areas.

Apparently viewed as enemy sites by Assad, bombings targeting medical facilities have occurred. Doctors Without Borders is keeping secret the locations of its clinics in Syria, including the one I chanced upon being organized.

We sometimes casually use “hero” to describe athletes or others to whom the term doesn’t apply. However, after I met the Doctors Without Borders team who were about to put their lives at very real risk, I wished them Godspeed and retreated to my room. I thought about who I had just left — quietly but genuinely heroic people.

Our government has several bad options in this conflict. However, we, as individuals, do have choices of whom to support. I met such people in Turkey.

Bruce McDowell of Tacoma is a former reader columnist. Email him at bmcdowell@harbornet.com.

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