Striking staff close hospital in northwest Syria after six months without pay

AMMAN: Dozens of staff members from a hospital in rebel-held northwestern Syria are on strike for the sixth straight day because they have not been paid for the past six months, hospital sources told Syria Direct.

Doctors at the Ahli Hospital in Azaz, a city 6km south of Syria’s northern border controlled by Turkish-backed rebels, announced on May 10 that the staff would not return to work until they were given their six months of back pay. The strike includes all staff members including physicians, nurses, technicians and administrators. The hospital remains closed due to the strike.   

Two doctors and the director of operations told Syria Direct that that staff brought operations at Aleppo's Azaz Ahli Hospital to a standstill because the International Medical Corps (IMC), a US-based humanitarian organization, has not provided salaries since last November.

Syria Direct contacted the media office for IMC’s headquarters in both Los Angeles and the United Kingdom, in addition to their local branch in Amman. A representative from the IMC Amman office told Syria Direct she could not comment on any of the organization's projects outside Jordan. As of publication, IMC offices in the US and the UK had not yet replied to Syria Direct’s requests for comment on the Azaz Ahli Hospital.

When funding cut off in November, hospital staff opted for a slowdown rather than stopping medical services entirely, Dr. Muhammad al-Qhaini, the director of Azaz Ahli Hospital who is also on strike, told Syria Direct, “hoping that the [IMC] would resolve the situation.”

“The administration respects the wishes of the staff, and we support their just demands,” Dr. al-Qhaini added.

 Azaz Ahli Hospital’s doctors announce strike on May 10. Photo courtesy of al-Ahli Hospital.

For months, medical personnel have worked one or two days a week and cut their daily patient load in half. But six months have passed since anyone received their last paycheck.

“We reached a point where we could no longer talk about being patient,” Dr. Abdul Ghani, a general physician from the Azaz Ahli Hospital told Syria Direct on Sunday.

On the first day of the strike, he and his fellow doctors stood at the hospital’s entrance holding signs that read, “Give us our rights,” “Where is our due?” and “6 months without payment…now what?”

For the estimated 100,000 residents in Azaz and its surrounding villages, the strike means that the Ahli Hospital, the largest medical facility in the area, is no longer providing any services.

Azaz and the villages clustered around it are home to thousands of displaced Syrians. In March 2017 alone, an estimated 3,000 residents fled north towards the Turkish border due to shelling and clashes in eastern Aleppo province, according to a report by the Global Protection Cluster, a UN-led research and policy advising organization.

Azaz-area residents must now seek medical treatment in the town of Siju, 6km to the northeast, or the hospital at the Bab al-Salama crossing on the Syrian side of the Turkish border.

“What was a five-minute trip to the hospital is now an hour-long trip or more,” Azaz resident Youssef Asaad told Syria Direct on Sunday.

Asaad, who took his 4-year-old nephew to the hospital in Siju last week, said that the unreliable public transportation system in the northern Aleppo countryside turns a trip to the hospital into a day-long endeavor.

At the hospital, Dr. Jumaa Akash, a radiologist, says that residents have expressed their support for the strike to him.

“If protests like these aren’t organized, then how are doctors going to make a living?” Dr. Akash told Syria Direct.

The International Medical Corps (IMC) began funding the Azaz Ahli Hospital in May 2015, according to the facility’s director, Dr. Muhammad al-Qhaini.

In November, the funding abruptly stopped, he says. “We had no idea why, and we still don’t know the reason.”

The hospital director says that the IMC guaranteed funding to the Azaz Ahli Hospital until 2018. Syria Direct could not independently verify this claim.

Medical staff at the Azaz Ahli Hospital went on strike in May 2016 to protest the security situation in the region after two doctors were kidnapped by unidentified gunman in the northern rebel-held held city, Syria Direct reported at the time. The kidnapped physicians were released within 24 hours. 

Mohammad Ali

Originally from Latakia, Mohammad moved to Jordan in 2012. He completed a BA in Business Management in 2012. He previously volunteered with non-profit organizations in Jordan.

Marah Faraj

Marah is from Daraa province. She studied French Literature at Yarmouk University in northern Jordan where she has lived since 2012.

Tariq Adely

Tariq Adely graduated from Brown University in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in comparative literature and translation. He continued his studies at the Qasid Institute and the Institute for Critical Thought in Amman, Jordan.