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A student and a veterinarian who treated thousands under siege in Madaya build new lives in exile

AMMAN: Muhammad Darwish spends most evenings watching movies in his […]

18 April 2018

AMMAN: Muhammad Darwish spends most evenings watching movies in his apartment in Istanbul, Turkey. During the day, the 27-year-old Syrian refugee has only a handful of obligations: taking Turkish language classes, visiting friends in cafes and applying to universities.

Darwish’s current routine hardly resembles his life just one year ago, when he spent his days performing emergency surgeries or struggling to treat malnourished patients in a battered, short-staffed field hospital in his hometown in the mountains west of Damascus.

“I’d stay at the hospital for days at a time,” Darwish recalls. “Sometimes, I’d just sleep there between shifts.”

Darwish was a fourth-year dentistry student at Damascus University when the opposition announced control of the former resort town of Madaya in 2012. With fighting between government and rebel forces close to home, Darwish dropped out of school just months before graduation, moving back to Madaya and volunteering at a field hospital.

Back in Madaya, Darwish worked alongside doctors treating patients wounded by airstrikes and crossfire from gun battles. Then, in July 2015, Syrian government forces and thousands of Lebanese Hezbollah militants encircled the town, imposing an airtight siege on its 40,000 residents.

Pro-government forces built checkpoints on every road leading into Madaya, laid landmines on its outskirts and positioned snipers on its perimeter. Within months, Darwish began to see his neighbors dying of starvation and kidney failure from acute malnutrition. Sporadic aid deliveries did little to alleviate the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Madaya.

When the siege of Madaya began, most of the town’s medical staff had recently left to treat patients elsewhere in nearby towns witnessing heavy fighting, only to then find themselves unable to return, says Darwish. The town’s last trained doctor left in winter 2015 in a one-time deal with the government.

With no senior medical staff in town, Darwish and two of his colleagues—local veterinarian Muhammad Yousef and fellow dentistry student Hussein Asad—took on the role of doctors, and sometimes surgeons, despite lacking the proper qualifications.

“It was an emergency,” Darwish tells Syria Direct via WhatsApp from his home in Istanbul. “It was life or death.”

Muhammad Darwish rests at the hospital in Madaya in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Darwish. 

For the next year and a half, the trio handled every medical emergency and surgery in Madaya. With a patchwork knowledge of medicine, Darwish and his colleagues used WhatsApp to ask doctors elsewhere in Syria and abroad how to perform life-saving surgeries with the basic tools and medicine they had access to.

“We didn’t have the right tools, the right medicine or the right knowledge,” Darwish says. “We did the best we could.”

In April 2017, after nearly two years of siege, a complex evacuation deal between rebel forces and the Syrian government ended the siege of Madaya and saw Darwish and his colleagues—along with more than 3,000 residents—displaced to northern Syria.

This past Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of Madaya’s evacuation. Today, Bashar al-Assad’s government rules the town. Set adrift, Madaya’s doctors have now  parted ways with one another: Darwish pursues an education in Istanbul, Asad lives elsewhere in Turkey and Yousef is a veterinarian once more, working in rebel-held Idlib province.

Reflecting on their experiences in a series of extended conversations with Syria Direct this month, Darwish and Yousef say that memories of the Madaya siege, and particularly the patients they could not save, continue to define them even as they work to build new lives in exile.

‘Broken promises’

Pick any article written about Madaya in English or Arabic media during the siege and it is likely that Muhammad Darwish is mentioned somewhere in it. The story of the aspiring dentist-turned-doctor’s plight captivated the world, and Darwish readily spoke to the media.

So, when he left Madaya in 2017, Darwish believed a better future was in reach. He had received dozens of informal scholarship and work offers from individuals and humanitarian organizations during his time under siege, he says.

“It seemed like as soon as I left [Syria], I’d be given opportunities,” Darwish says. “There were a lot of promises.”

But the promises and praise he received in Madaya did not translate to real opportunities once Darwish arrived in Istanbul. “The reality has been somewhat difficult,” he tells Syria Direct.

Almost immediately after arriving in Turkey in April 2017, Darwish took steps to go back to school. This time, he wanted to study medicine and become a full doctor, re-learning the skills he picked up on the job in Madaya’s field hospital in the hope of ultimately returning to his country.

But once in Turkey, even the simple task of gathering the paperwork and documentation needed to apply for schools was a battle for Darwish.

To obtain his transcripts, Darwish had to contact Damascus University, a state-run institution deep inside government-held territory. For months, the university refused to release his transcripts, Darwish says.

Veterinarian Muhammad Yousef (left) and his colleagues in Madaya, August 2016. Photo courtesy of Madaya Medical Commission.

Just after Darwish left the university in 2012, government security forces interrogated his friends and classmates about his whereabouts, he says, leading him to believe that he is wanted for arrest.

“It took more than two months for me to just get the paperwork together,” Darwish recalls. As a result, he missed all the deadlines for the universities he hoped to apply for.

Slowly, the reality of his situation in Istanbul began to sink in. School was out of reach—for now—and most of the promised opportunities had evaporated.

In 2017, Darwish was named a finalist for the Aurora prize, an international humanitarian award of $100,000 given to an individual who helps to preserve human life. Because of his status as a refugee in Turkey, he could not attend the awards ceremony in Armenia in April 2017. “I watched it on YouTube instead,” he says.

Alone in Istanbul, Darwish now finds himself with long stretches of free time for the first time in years. Most of his friends and former colleagues live near the Syrian border, and while his Turkish is improving, he has not made many new acquaintances over the past year.

Films and TV shows provide an escape, and the 27-year-old spends hours watching everything from Oscar-winning American dramas to Pixar cartoons.

Occasionally, Darwish calls up Muhammad Yousef, the veterinarian he worked with in Madaya. Although the two haven’t seen each other in more than one year, they remain close, bonded by their experiences under siege.

“We were like brothers,” says Darwish. “I don’t think anyone could ever forget someone like him.”

‘A second home’

One year after leaving Madaya, Muhammad Yousef is a veterinarian once more, living in a corner of Syria’s northwestern, rebel-held Idlib province. There, rather than sewing up the wounds of gunshot victims, he treats livestock and other animals.

In Idlib, he is just one of thousands of other Syrians evacuated to the rebel-held north in a series of surrender and evacuation agreements with the government over the past almost two years.

But even as Yousef starts over with his wife and six children in Idlib, his mind is never far from Madaya.

“Day and night I remember what happened there,” Yousef tells Syria Direct over WhatsApp. “The happiness when someone could be saved, the pain when we could not help.”

In Madaya, Yousef treated animals until most of the town’s medical staff fled the encircled, bombarded city in late 2015, and he was called upon to help.

For nearly two years, Yousef rarely left Madaya’s field hospital. While he was trained to operate on animals, he performed hundreds of surgeries on Madaya’s sick and injured residents, he says.

“When it comes to the basics, like giving medicine and stitching up wounds, treating humans is similar to treating animals,” Yousef says.

The town of Madaya in February 2017. Photo courtesy of Madaya.

During his time in Madaya, the veterinarian set broken limbs and changed dressings on patients’ wounds, in addition to more complex procedures such as abdominal operations for residents injured by bullets and shrapnel, he says.

By the end of Yousef’s time in Madaya, he had performed at least 135 caesarean sections on pregnant women, he says.

“Every day brought something different,” Yousef recalls. “I have painful memories I would never wish on another person.”

After leaving Madaya with his family one year ago, Yousef chose to remain in Syria rather than continue with his colleagues to Turkey. He can’t imagine leaving his country, he says. But while Yousef describes Idlib as “a second home,” he still hopes to return to Madaya one day.

Although Idlib’s medical infrastructure is stretched thin and regularly attacked, Yousef simply isn’t needed in the same way he was in Madaya. He is free to work with animals, just as he did before the war began.

And when Yousef isn’t working, he checks in with his friend Muhammad Darwish from time to time.

“I saw him more than I saw my own children [in Madaya,]” says Yousef. “He was a friend, a brother and a confidant.”

“Muhammad’s future is ahead of him,” he adds. “He must finish his education.”

‘Make things right’

Back in Istanbul, Muhammad Darwish is doing his best to take charge of that future. With the documents and transcripts he gathered last year, the aspiring doctor applied to a number of Turkish universities earlier this year. Now, he is anxiously waiting to hear back in August.

“Hopefully things will work out,” he says.

Darwish, having performed surgeries and worked in a field hospital in a warzone, possesses unique experience that sets him apart from other prospective medical students. Yet his experiences are not quantifiable: he has no university degree, nor was he even qualified to do the work he did in Madaya.

As Darwish waits to hear back from schools, he is working on his Turkish, which he will need for his studies. After one year of language courses in Istanbul, he says it’s still difficult to express complex ideas in the language.

“You can say that my Turkish is at 50 percent,” Darwish says. “I don’t have many Turkish friends, so I still have a bit of trouble with conversation and comprehension.”

Muhammad Darwish reads at a bookstore in Istanbul earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Muhammad Darwish.

While Darwish is optimistic about his chances of getting into medical school, he feels, at age 27, as though time is running out for him to complete a years-long medical degree.

Even so, almost everything Darwish does today is to bring him closer to a single goal: returning to Syria as a fully licensed doctor with the skills he didn’t have in Madaya.

“This is why I came to Turkey,” Darwish says. “If I were already a doctor, I never would have left Syria.”

While working towards his goal, Darwish, like Yousef, often finds his thoughts wandering and returning to Madaya: the pain of losing patients and the closeness he felt with his colleagues, the only two people who can truly understand what he experienced.

“We couldn’t have become any closer,” Darwish tells Syria Direct. “We lived the war together, and we felt the pain when patients died in our care together.”

Limited by a lack of equipment, medicine and knowledge, the three did what they could and “made the best of what we had,” says Darwish. Still, he wishes he could have done more and saved more people.

“Even if I have to start from scratch, I’ll make things right eventually,” says Darwish.

“I’ll go back and make things right.”

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