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Exiled Syrian doctors go back to work helping refugees in Turkey

By Luana Sarmini-Buonaccorsi

Safa al-Hussein comes into the consultation room with her four-year-old daughter, Ahed, who has a leg injury she suffered during an attack on the northern Syrian city of Raqa. 

She is treated by a doctor and nurse, who are both Syrian like her. 

But this healthcare center is hundreds of kilometres (miles) from their native country, in the heart of the Turkish capital, Ankara.

Turkey has taken in more than 3.5- million refugees from Syria since the conflict began in March 2011.

Since then, millions have fled the country or been forced into internal displacement. 

The Ankara centre’s medical team is partly made up of Syrian refugees.

After seven weeks of training, administered by the Turkish health ministry and the World Health Organization, they are authorised to work in the migrant health centre, returning to careers they had in Syria.

They take care of Arabic-speaking refugees in Ankara, the majority of whom are Syrian, in a setting that is as reassuring as it is functioning and safe.

Extremely progressive

The Turkish government has drawn up “extremely progressive legislation for refugees”, said Felix Leger, responsible for health matters in Turkey for the European Commission’s humanitarian aid organization, ECHO.

ECHO partly finances the training provided to the Syrian refugee doctors and nurses.

“A registered refugee has the same rights in terms of access to health and education as a Turkish citizen,” Leger said.

But language and cultural barriers can be a major obstacle, so the idea emerged that refugee nurses and doctors could themselves help their compatriots overcome those issues, he added.

The training consists of a week of theory classes, followed by six weeks of practical courses in which the Syrian medical staff follow their Turkish counterparts during consultations.

It is a way of certifying the professional skills of those who often fled to Turkey without their diplomas.

They can then work in one of 99 Turkish health centers available for migrants.

So far, more than 800 doctors have been recruited at the end of their course at one of seven training centers, set up since January 2017.

Trust issues

Doctor Nidal Arap, who fled Aleppo in 2012, has been working in the Ankara center since last June. He says around 600 patients pass through each day.

“Since [the patients] do not speak Turkish... they could not explain to the doctor what they had, what they wanted. But now they can come here, and get treatment in their language,” he told AFP during a visit to the center.

Eight of the health clinic’s 10 doctors, and 10 of the 13 nurses, are Syrian.

Arap is following the case of Ahed in particular, with whom he formed an immediate bond. “Her father was also called Nidal,” he says, smiling.

“The first time she came, she clung to me and did not want to let me go.”

Ahed plays with balloons given to her by the centre’s workers to help reassure her, as her mother tells AFP what happened to their family.

“We were at home when an air strike hit, killing my husband and my daughter, and injuring Ahed,” Hussein said.

After the first operation, the hospital staff in Syria recommended taking Ahed abroad for her care. 

Mother and daughter came to Turkey six months ago and heard about a center where “good Syrian doctors worked”. 

The child has been coming for treatment ever since. “Now Ahed can walk,” her mother says, smiling.

Door-to-door 

The Syrian doctors also contribute to campaigns encouraging infant vaccinations organized by the health ministry and WHO.

“These campaigns in the past ran into problems of trust between medical teams and target populations, simple people who come from regions affected by conflict and were scared,” said Mohammad Khattab, a doctor, who also came from Aleppo and arrived in Turkey in late 2015.

“The presence of Syrian doctors and nurses alongside our Turkish brothers has greatly contributed to the success of these” door-to-door campaigns, he added.

Same tragedy

On the floor below is a “safe space” for women and young girls, providing psychological and social support for migrants. 

Here too, trust is essential.

“It is not an easy thing to build trust between that community and us so we have staff called health mediators to provide a bridge,” said Duygu Arig, humanitarian program regional manager for the UN Population Fund.

The focus is on reproductive health and gender-based violence, subjects which can be difficult to tackle.

The mediators, selected from among people who have benefited from the health center’s services, undergo intensive training for five days, provided by UNFPA.

One of the five mediators at the Ankara center, a mother of four originally from Aleppo who asked not to be identified, described how the women she approaches sometimes break down in tears as soon as she speaks to them.

“Women trust us and cooperate with us because we have the same experience, we have experienced the same tragedy,” she said.

Topics: Safa al-Hussein , Syria , World Health Organization , Turkey , Felix Leger

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