GlobeMed Panel Discusses Health Challenges of the Syrian Refugee Crisis

GlobeMed at Northwestern hosted a panel Monday to discuss the continuing Syrian crisis and its impacts on the health of Syrian refugees as part of its aims to learn about health and social justice issues locally and internationally. The student group invited Sufyan Sohel from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and Dr. Mufaddal Hamadeh of the Syrian American Medical Society for a brief roundtable in Fisk Hall. Professor Peter Locke asked both individuals questions about their work assisting Syrians in the crisis and actions students can take to advocate for Syrians.

Students at the panel enjoying dinner from Mumbai Indian Grill

Students attending the panel enjoyed dinner from Mumbai Indian Grill.

For nearly five years, fighting and unrest has plagued Syria. Hundreds of thousands have died in the conflict, and many more are now displaced, forced to leave their homes to avoid the violence.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 4.9 million Syrians are registered as refugees. Countries like Turkey and Lebanon have taken in the most Syrian refugees to date, but countries in Europe as well as Canada and Australia are also working to resettle displaced people. America’s involvement in helping resettle these refugees has become less certain. Although the Obama administration aimed to increase assistance to world refugees, Trump’s recent executive order banning travel from seven countries including Syria has cast doubt upon America’s dedication to assisting Syrian refugees.

Sohel and Dr. Hamadeh’s firsthand perspectives on the crisis were sobering. Dr. Hamadeh, whose organization provides care for Syrians, said that nearly endless challenges exist for doctors in the country that used to offer citizens a stable health system.

“The regime, and the Russians also, have targeted health care facilities in the war,” Dr. Hamadeh said. There is a deliberate targeting of clinics, hospitals, healthcare workers…using health as a weapon of war. It was used in an unprecedented way in the Syrian conflict and its very unfortunate because it’s led to a total devastation of the health care system.”

Dr. Hamadeh presented slides on the state of health in Syria.

The direct targeting of health care has led to an underground hospital movement, but the doctors still struggle to find adequate resources to care for the Syrian refugee population, which continues to have a high birthrate.

Many refugees understandably attempt to get out of the situation. Working as an attorney in the Chicago area, Sohel deals with the difficulties Syrians face trying to reach America.

“What people don’t understand is the lengthy process it takes for someone who applies for refugee and asylum status before they’re allowed in, an 18 to 24 month process as it is,” Sohel said. “Those who get on a plane and get refuge once they get here, even for them, they’re getting temporary protected status if they qualify and then it’s a multi-year process for them to become citizens so these are individuals who are heavily, heavily vetted by the government already.”

Trump’s recent attempts to ban travel and heighten security will likely make asylum application even more arduous.

Sufyan Sohel discusses the challenges of applying for asylum in the United States

“We’re seeing the real effects of what this executive order created…the empowerment of a lot of our federal agencies to make these anti-immigrant, anti-minority decisions of not allowing people in and speeding into this mentality that certain groups of people are no longer welcome here and that we aren’t this land that is…open for all communities,” Sohel said.

Once in America, things are still far from easy. Though all Syrian refugees are covered by Medicaid, they have few resources and face large amounts of discrimination, according to Dr.Hamadeh.
Locke asked the panelists how Americans, especially students, could make a difference in light of such a negative picture.

“Everybody can do something it can be something simple by donating five bucks or 10 bucks or maybe giving up your…allowance to help a Syrian refugee kid,” Dr. Hamadeh said. “It could be by spreading awareness and talking to your politicians; it could be by volunteering on medical missions or other missions.”

“Share what you are learning today,” Sohel said. “Speak out against injustices and use the power that you have, collectively use your education, use your influence, to really advocate for these marginalized communities.”

With such a bleak picture painted by the presentation, one student asked how it’s possible for humanitarian groups to carry on their mission. Despite the challenges and seemingly insurmountable obstacles to helping all those displaced, Dr. Hamadeh said he believes that organizations will remain optimistic.

“I can tell you from experience…there’s nothing [more] exhilarating and fulfilling than saving a human life,” Dr. Hamadeh said. “When you go there and deal with the people in need and refugees and you see how much relief you give them and what you can do for even one single life you can never stop–you’ll be addicted to it.”

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