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The Syrian Genocide: Dr. Zaher Sahloul Reports from the Field

Dr. Zaher Sahloul
Dr. Zaher Sahloul, an associate clinical professor at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, was invited to give a "field report" of his encounters while serving a few medical relief trips to Syria.

May 18, 2017

People discuss Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and ISIS, but rarely the 20 million Syrian citizens affected by the nation’s ongoing conflicts. According to Dr. Zaher Sahloul, there is a huge lack of compassion for those affected by the Syrian Civil War, and people are avoiding moral responsibilities.

Amy Hagopian, faculty member at the UW’s School of Public Health, invited Sahloul to speak about his work in Syria at the UW on Monday. Sahloul is an American physician from Syria who normally works in Chicago. In 1998, before the war, he co-founded the Syrian American Medical Society. Since the war in Syria began, he has gotten increasingly involved as the need for doctors has grown. He has traveled back to Syria, Lebanon, and Jordan to help provide refugees with medical care.

Sahloul said the media only covers large-scale attacks in Syria when hundreds of people die, but massacres happen every day. He showed a gory photo of people lying on an emergency room floor.

 “This is the chaos you see in the emergency room in Aleppo and other cities in Syria when you have a massacre … you see patients on the floor, and doctors have to choose which patients they should treat and which patients they should let go,” Sahloul said, referring to the photo. “This is the worst position that doctors are put through.”

He described Syria before the conflict as a middle-income country with good health care benchmarks. He also acknowledged that the doctors are very capable and have the same technology available in the United States, yet there is an obvious lack of resources. Along with the sheer number of patients per doctor, there are surgeries happening with flashlights as a light source due to a lack of electricity. Additionally, local anesthesia is in low supply because of obstacles to reaching certain areas in Syria under government control.

After the last pediatrician in Aleppo was killed from a missile attack, Sahloul and another doctor decided to go help treat the children there. On the way, they were instructed to say their final prayers, as this was the most dangerous city in the world at the time. To continue to aid in the best way he can, Sahloul has created 24/7 chat rooms for doctors in the United States to communicate with doctors in Syria to provide medical consultation and assist in complex surgeries.

This civil war began as part of the Arab Spring, when protesters wanted increased freedoms, and Assad responded with extreme brutality. According to Sahloul, this is a large-scale issue, and there is a moral responsibility to prevent this genocide from continuing. Assad has normalized the attack on hospitals and health care workers, which previously was completely unacceptable, Sahloul said. Over 300 hospitals have been bombed.

Sahloul insisted that United Nations and United States government officials say they care about the people of Syria, but when the state department meets, nothing happens. He recounted meeting with President Barack Obama and telling him his legacy would be determined by his administration’s actions in Syria, which the President brushed off.

Sahloul noted that many foreign policy makers are not concerned about Syria since it does not affect them.

“The UN has been focused on providing humanitarian assistance, but I think the UN has a bigger responsibility, which is protection of civilians,” Sahloul said.

 Shon Meckfessel, a Ph.D graduate from the University of Washington who studied English and social movements, joined the conversation later. He explained the amount of violence in Syria is not unprecedented, but the underwhelming response is.

“Look at what’s been happening in Syria — it’s been dragging on for six years, in plain view, and yet people are not believing their own eyes,” Meckfessel said. “As global citizens, the first thing we have to do is face what’s happening.”

When an audience member asked what the anti-war, pro-Syrian mission should be for Americans, Sahloul responded by saying, “I think this is a very important question, frankly I consider myself anti-war … but at the same time, at the time the Syrian crisis started I felt that the left had failed us in Syria. The Syrian people want regime change, so why not support the will of the Syrian people?”

After six years and over half a million people killed by their own government, Sahloul wants people to understand that Assad is a war criminal and that this matters to everyone. Sahloul encouraged people to be aware of what’s going on, and to write and share information so the crisis is finally given the attention it needs and hasn’t received for so long.

 Reach contributing writer Allison Dubbs at Twitter: @alidubbs

This event was sponsored by the Department of Global Health, University of Washington; Washington Global Health Alliance; Health Alliance International; Center for Global Studies, University of Washington; The Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies, University of Washington; and the Middle East Center, University of Washington.

This article originally appeared in The Daily UW on May 17, 2017.