This summer, Cornell faculty and alumni volunteered in Lebanese refugee camps to provide aid to victims of the Syrian Civil War, one of the largest humanitarian crises of the 21st century. The two doctors and a historian shared harrowing tales from their mission during a panel on Friday.
The event featured Shweta Iyer ’09, a member of the pediatric emergency medicine department at NYU Langone Health, Prof. Josayn Abisaab, emergency medicine, Weill Cornell Medicine and Prof. Mostafa Minawi, history, the director of the Ottoman & Turkish Studies Initiative. All three were stationed in northern Lebanon with the Syrian American Medical Society.
“It’s been seven years and the crisis continues. The level of destruction in Syria is almost unparalleled. For half of the country’s population, picking up and leaving was the only option,” Minawi said at the event. Over 5 million Syrians have fled the country while 6.6 million are internally displaced, according to the U.N. Refugee Agency.
Minawi stressed the importance of recognizing the common humanity of the Syrian refugees.
“It is important for us to remember that most refugees, at one point or another, had lives incredibly similar to ours. Most of them wanted good lives; they wanted to go to university,” he said.
Minawi worked as a SAMS interpreter in Lebanon, servicing doctors during medical treatment. He shared the tragic story of a father of three who had his leg blown off.
“He considered himself lucky to have lost his leg. It meant that he could finally leave his refugee camp in Damascus, where he was dying of starvation,” Minawi said. All along, however, the father’s primary concern was for his children.
“I still have dreams about him,” Minawi said.
When Iyer’s mentor emailed her about volunteering with SAMS, she jumped at the opportunity. “I had always read about the Syrian refugee crisis in the news and it felt very distant. This was my chance to do something besides donating ten dollars,” Iyer said.
The mission reminded her of why she went into medicine: “to help people and make a difference in the world,” Iyer said. “I learned what it meant to sacrifice everything for your child, despite having all the odds stacked against you.”
Iyer worked to provide primary care to children in the camps. “The trauma from war among refugee children is immense. It can manifest in various ways, from growth failure to bed wetting,” she said.
Abisaab grew up in Lebanon, studied pre-med at the American University of Beirut, and was forced to flee the country due to civil war. “I am, therefore, acutely aware that people in conflict situations have similar aspirations as me. However, many do not have the same fortune to come to the U.S. for medical school,” Abisaab said.
Abisaab was horrified by the magnitude of the Syrian refugee crisis, the “unpunished use” of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, and the deliberate attacks on healthcare facilities which is why she was determined to return to her home country and assist in alleviating refugee suffering.
Armed with 14 suitcases full of medication and supplies, the team of 13 doctors, 11 interpreters, and 15 SAMS volunteers — many of whom were themselves refugees — travelled to Lebanon and “witnessed the extraordinary resilience and strength of the refugees,” Abisaab said.
The panelists reported that their SAMS mission treated 1,219 patients over the course of the summer. They expressed their shared commitment to continue to advocate for refugees.
Iyer described the Syrian refugees as a population in limbo. “Born without documentation, they are not considered Lebanese or Syrian. They are a lost generation, restarting a life where they are neither here nor there,” she said.
As one refugee told the volunteer group, “you see me smiling because I have no other choice, but inside my heart is broken into 1,000 pieces.”