Al-Zaatari Refugee Camp is 50 miles north of Amman, Jordan's capital, near the countries' border. Since 2012, the camp has been home to Syrians who are fleeing violence in the ongoing Syrian civil war. The refugee camp looks like a small city with approximately 85,000 refugees as its residents.
“I went there, we all went there with a great deal of apprehension, not knowing what to expect, feeling that we were going into a place that’s going to be deprived and depressing, “ says Dr. Omar Lattouf, a senior cardiothoracic surgeon and a professor of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta. Inspired by his daughters Amal and Zeena, Dr. Lattouf decided to accompany them on a volunteer medical mission to Zaatari.
Omar, Zeena and Amal at an orientation session before going into Zaatari refugee camp.
Courtesy Omar Lattouf
Zaatari, we learned, was home for 86,000 inhabitants; mostly women and children and to lesser degree older men and fewer young and middle aged men. Many of the women were widowed mothers caring for their orphaned children; all product of a brutal war that started as part of the infamous "Arab Spring".
The war in Syria has become a war made up of several raging wars between so many different parties, armies, terrorist groups and others, each supported or allegedly supported by, or getting direct or clandestine support from regional or international powers.
For me, it was hard to tell who was fighting who and for what reasons. Thus I decided that I would focus on providing medical care to anyone who needed it. No questions asked about ethnic or political affiliation. That was the simplest way to deal with complex and changing alliances; they were too difficult to sort out. Caring for the needy without being concerned about political affiliations was in keeping with my medical oath, and my long training and practice in the United States.
On the first two days, I volunteered in the emergency room where I saw several children with second degree burns on their arms, legs and chest; all resulting from scolding water falling on their small bodies. I came to know a care provider, named Mohammed; a man in his early 40s, tall, handsome, with a neatly trimmed short beard. Mohammed was soft-spoken. He was there all the time, examining and treating the small patients with amazing spirits, kind attention and genuine care. He would console each of the children, clean the burn or injury site, apply soothing cream impregnated with anti-bacterial topical agents, and instruct the parents on further care. Meticulously, he would apply clean dressings to the wound to help alleviate the pain, and keep the wounds clean.
Being a cardiothoracic surgeon, I was out of my complex specialty as cardiac surgeon for those few days. There was no cardiac surgical operating room, no ICU, and no surgical team. Thus I became the local "expert surgeon" to see potential surgical cases that needed further evaluation or referral.
One patient I saw was a young man with dry cough and fever. I ordered a chest X-Ray. To my surprise there was a right upper lobe lesion. My colleagues and I reviewed the film and became concerned that he may have had pulmonary tuberculosis. Thus we immediately, separated him from the rest of the patients and notified the camp administrator to arrange for further testing outside the camp. We learned that in north Jordan there was a "Christian Hospital" that had been in existence for many years treating TB patients. Our patient was going to get an appointment there, the following day.
On the ensuing days, I spent part of my time helping my friend Bill Burke with the visual screening exams he came to conduct. My daughter Zeena would help us too. The Syrian clinic's waiting room was a barely-roofed assembly area with metal benches lined in parallel. With ambient temperatures approaching freezing points, those metal benches were awfully cold. Every day, we would start our work in the unheated and painfully cold and damp clinics. To stay warm, we kept our heavy clothes on. It took many layers of clothing to keep us from freezing and able to work until the heat of our bodies and those of our patients would warm the metal walled clinics.
In the eye clinic, we started seeing children as young as 2. We even examine patients in their late 60s and 70s. We did not turn anyone away. Bill brought with him individually wrapped candies to give to each child after her/his exam. Pretty quickly, the eye clinic became the "candy store" for the camp kids. It was difficult to stick to our plans; one exam, one candy. We enforced a policy of no returns for more candy. We had to ration the candy and use it only for the specific purpose intended.
Amal with Zaatari children after distributing tooth brushes snd toothpaste.
Three young boys, ages 9 or 10 years each, showed up on the first day for their exams. Their eyesight's were good. Each was given a piece of candy. They went away, only to come back back with several new young kids, each to be examined and take a candy. Quickly we realized the three children Samir, Abdullah and Abdul Kader, became our strongest recruiters. They would go, inform moms and dads (when present) about the free eye exams, and bring children in. The three boys became de-facto part of our team; recruiting patients and helping other children on where to stand and how to focus.
The next day, Samir; most vocal and assertive child of the three, showed up and asked: "Where is Ms. Zeena?" He wanted to help Zeena recruit more children and get their eyes examined. The following day, he returns and asked for "Aunt Zeena" and again he helped in guiding young boys and girls to the eye clinic and exams. To our surprise, he never asked for another piece of candy or failed to follow the rules we had set for him. Samir was cooperative, always showing up on our arrival and leaving the clinic at 11 am to attend his school and return back before our afternoon departure.
In the afternoon, Samir would hang around and ask questions about where we came from and how did we become doctors. I could tell that there was a lot of thinking going on in that child's mind. Seizing on the opportunity, I encouraged him to take his school seriously. He seemed to understand that in order to become a doctor he had to intently focus on his education. He would nod his head in the affirmative.
Samir became a frequent visitor and helper in our clinic. Before and after his school, we would find him hanging around, often waiting to talk to Zeena. He was quiet, inquisitive and with piercing eyes. Samir was a good-looking kid, round faced, light-skinned; burnt by the summer's sunrays, and with dirty blond hair. He was skinny; barely weighing 50 pounds. He was polite. Always wanting to help, but never getting in the way.
We all took a liking to Samir. We would inquire about him when he was not around. Afterward, we all realized that each one of us would look forward to see him every day. As Bill said: "I could not get this child out of my head". Interestingly, Zeena and I had the same feelings about Samir!
As we were winding up our work in the mission, having examined the eyes of over 350 children and adults, and referred about 40 with major vision issues, and Amal and her colleagues had treated another 300-plus dental patients, we were ready to head back to our bus to take us to Amman for the last time.
As we sat in the bus waiting for the rest of the doctors and nurses to join us, I noticed a little child sitting on the side of the road with his back to the corner of a small trailer and a nearby water tank. His head was pointing down. He was almost motionless. I watched him for few minutes. He was quiet, and did not move from his position. He seemed depressed, I concluded.
I looked closer; I realized that the boy was my friend Samir. I assumed he knew we were departing and will not be back again. In his own way, he wanted to say farewell, but did not want to impose on us. I turned to Bill, and said "Bill, can I have a handful of candy? I want to give it to Samir and say goodbye to him." Bill quickly reached to his bag and grabbed a handful of candy and said: "Please do, I cannot get Samir out of my head!"
I grabbed the candy and started to step put of the bus to hand Samir the candy when Zeena said: "Dad, please let me have the candy, I want to give it to Samir".
Zeena stepped out of the bus; walked toward Samir, knelt on the ground before him and extended her hand with the candy. I could see from my seat Samir's hand reaching out for the candy with his head still pointing to his feet. The bus filled up. The driver wanted to move out. I called for Zeena. She waived me to wait! I did.
Few minutes later Zeena came back to the bus and took her seat quietly and without saying a word. Her eyes did all the talking with tears flowing down her face. As the bus moved out, Zeena was sobbing. Bill and I were speechless. The bus moved out. Samir remained in his position as his view quickly faded away.
But from our heads, we could not remove Samir. He stayed with us as a living memory of Al Zaatari camp and all the people suffering from a painful war. ... As we departed Amman and returned to our home in Atlanta, Samir became symbol of Al Zaatari camp, and will stay with us for years to come.
We all went to Zaatari to treat refugees and heal patients. We did. Equally stated, Zaatari healed my inner soul and made me a more caring physician. Many of my colleagues felt the same.
Zaatari was a life-changing experience. It will stay with me to the rest of my life.
And as this mission came to an end, I said goodbye to my little friend. Goodbye Samir. I hope we will meet again!
Samir and "Aunt" Zeena
CORRECTION: An initial version of this story had an incorrect location for the Al-Zaatari Refugee Camp.
From PRI's The World ©2015 Public Radio International