Minnesota volunteers offer medical help to Syrian refugees

By JOHN MOLSEED, ROCHESTER, Minn. (AP) — The video may be grainy, but it’s clear the infant lying on a gurney is struggling to breathe. The baby, identified as “Azzam,” had been brought to a refugee camp in Lebanon for displaced Syrians. The child’s family said they were turned away from an area hospital because they didn’t have money to pay for treatment.

Ingrid Johansen, a Minnesota registered nurse and volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society, assessed the 6-month-old.

“He’s had a fever for several days, he’s hypoxic, labored breathing, lethargic — needs oxygen, hospital admission,” Johansen says in the video, shot by freelance journalist Farrah Fazal.

Johansen was one of 10 Minnesota residents who spent a week volunteering their skills at refugee camps near the Syrian border in April. In that week, 34 SAMS volunteers from nine countries treated more than 800 people. They provided treatment ranging from pediatric checkups to emergency care.

Volunteers did what they could to treat the child and then raised funds to pay for the infant’s admission to an area hospital, the Post-Bulletin reported.

SAMS was founded in the 1990s as a networking organization for Syrian-national medical professionals. Today, the organization is a leading medical relief agency providing aid in rebel-held areas of war-torn Syria and at refugee camps for displaced Syrians.

“That baby likely would have died,” said Lindsey Smith, a registered nurse who helped found the Minnesota chapter of SAMS.

Azzam was one of the more dramatic SAMS encounters, but it wasn’t the only one that changed the lives of both families and volunteers, Smith said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever fully know the impact we have,” Smith said.

Smith and some of her Minnesota-chapter SAMS colleagues will soon be in Rochester at Pasquale’s Neighborhood Pizzeria to share some of their stories. While the primary purpose of the event is to show people in Rochester what their colleagues and neighbors have done to help, Smith said she hopes it generates support for SAMS.

“Many children are so malnourished, you can’t tell their ages,” Smith said.

They’ll also hear about the conditions under which the medical professionals worked.

“We were working in farm sheds,” she said. “One place had been a meat processing facility — there were hooks hanging from the ceiling.”

What Smith wants to make clear is how far even a little help can go for people in the refugee camps.

“I can’t tell you how resilient those people there are — and how kind,” Smith said.

Sometimes showing people compassion makes a difference to people who have lost everything, she said.

“Sometimes that’s more important than the medical care we’re giving,” she said.

Mohamad Khouli, of St. Paul, who worked as a translator for the Minnesota SAMS team’s most recent trip, took time to play with children in the camps.

“I like kids,” he said.

Born and raised in Damascus, Khouli first became an uncle at age 8 and has 16 nephews and nieces. He understands that playing with children might not be a priority for parents and other aid workers.

“They (parents) need to take care of their daily lives,” Khouli said. “They (children) just needed somebody’s attention and somebody to play with.”

“The children really were drawn to Mohamad and clung to him everywhere he went,” Smith said.

Hospitals inside rebel-held areas in Syria have come under fire. SAMS temporarily halted operations at Al-Ihsan Hospital in Dara’a on June 28 when the hospital was damaged by aerial bombardments.

For many Syrians in the U.S., returning to their homeland is out of the question for multiple reasons. A recent travel ban bars non-green card-holding Syrians from traveling to the U.S. This would make a trip by some Syrians to assist their home country a one-way trip. Others who might have green cards or U.S. citizenship are reluctant to re-enter the country for fear they could be detained while traveling on a U.S. visa.

“You never know how the regime might react,” Khouli said. “For me, my family, we were really active in being vocal and being against (Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s) regime.”

Khouli said two of his friends in Damascus disappeared after speaking out against the government.

A Syrian doctor studying at Mayo goes by M.A. to protect his identity and keep his family safe. He said he wouldn’t feel confident he could get back into the U.S. if he did go abroad to help. He said he understands security concerns, but denying people who have the skills and training to help because of their national origin or visa status worsens an already bad situation.

“I believe there should always be an exception for humanitarian reasons,” he said.

Khouli said he, too, has known Syrian people having trouble re-entering the U.S., even with valid green cards — his own mother included. He said he went on his most recent SAMS trip because going to Lebanon presented less of a risk than going to Syria.

SAMS volunteers who travel abroad to assist Syrian refugees pay their own travel expenses. Medical professionals bring their own equipment and most try to bring extra supplies, such as clothing. Some volunteers hold small fundraisers or launch GoFundMe campaigns to help pay their way.

Khouli said seeing people from other countries travel to help Syrians made him realize he could afford to take time away from work to do the same.

“I felt obligated to go there,” he said.

Hassan Ismail, an Aleppo native and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Dentistry, said Smith’s dedication and willingness to spend so much time abroad is inspirational.

“I can’t keep up with her,” Ismail said. “She’s an amazing human being.”

Like M.A. and Khouli, he is reluctant to return to Syria right now but may go abroad to help in refugee camps in Europe.

Smith plans to do the same. She begins an eight-month stint at a refugee camp in Bosnia soon.

Since returning home to Minnesota, Smith admits she has had a hard time adjusting to her old life. She said she felt as though she left behind people in need when she returned to the U.S. in April.

“I found myself going into a deep sadness,” she said. “It’s like you know the world is burning and no one is talking about it.”

She sold her car and reduced her living expenses to save money to go to Bosnia and live there for eight months. However, she doesn’t see the effort as a sacrifice.

“The more I do this, the more I earn back.”

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