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Expat Syrian doctors help bind up the wounds of war

Doctors in Syria describe being targeted in bombing campaigns and risking death, detention, and torture to treat the wounded, whether civilians or fighters.

By Katie NguyenAlertNet / February 14, 2013

A doctor examines a child in a camp for internally displaced people at a village school outside Damascus, Syria. Medecins Sans Frontieres, one of the few foreign organizations working inside Syria, says the Syrian army has been waging war against health workers in rebel-held territory.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

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London

Mounir, a Syrian surgeon working in central England, avoids heart-wrenching TV reports about his native land if he can, worried they may affect his work.

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Ever since the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad began in March 2011, Mounir has split his time between practicing orthopedic surgery in Manchester, one of England’s biggest cities, and mobilizing emergency relief for fellow Syrians struggling to survive amid war and destruction.

"I never thought there would be such a need in Syria  for the profession I'm practicing. I never thought that one day there would be such demand for medical doctors and for basic life-saving procedures," said the 37-year-old, who declined to give his full name.

"As a doctor, I get phone calls from colleagues there -- 'please help us, we are running out of insulin, please help us, we are running out of blood bags, please help us, we need a CT scan' -- which one are you going to help?"

Nearly two years of civil war have left an estimated 60,000 Syrians dead, millions homeless, and a once enviable health system in tatters. More than half the 88 hospitals have been damaged and nearly one third are out of service, according to Syrian health ministry data released by the World Health Organisation.

As a trustee of Syria Relief, a UK-registered charity, Mounir has helped to raise more than 2 million pounds ($3.1 million), mainly from the Syrian diaspora, to send desperately needed supplies, from blood bags and vaccines to flour, clothing, and even ambulances.

Syria Relief's efforts are part of a much wider response to the crisis at home from the diaspora – in Canada, the United States, Europe, and the Gulf region – many of whom met in London in January to discuss their work and call for support before a UN donor pledging conference to secure $1.5 billion for Syria.

Not only have hospitals and clinics in Syria been attacked. Medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), one of the few foreign organizations working inside Syria, says the Syrian army has been waging war against health workers and services in rebel-held territory.

Doctors describe being targeted in bombing campaigns and risking death, detention, and torture to treat the wounded, whether civilians or fighters.

Many have left or been killed. One Syrian doctor, now a refugee in Turkey, told the International Rescue Committee he believed there were now only 36 doctors practicing in and around the city of Aleppo, compared with an estimated 5,000 before the uprising began.

Doing their best to fill the gap are expatriate doctors like Mounir, who have been able to work in Syria at a time when much of the country remains out of bounds to UN and international aid agencies.

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