January 18, 2018
We met little Ayesha and her mother, Um Ayesha, when we visited the UOSSM (Union of Medical Care & Relief Organizations) mental health clinic in Reyhanli, a small Turkish town near the Syrian border. Like most other Syrians in Reyhanli, Ayesha and her family fled to Turkey to escape the brutal war that has raged in Syria since 2012. Ayesha, a shy girl around four or five years of age, is being treated for depression, fear of abandonment, and other PTSD-related symptoms as a result of the conflict. She is not old enough to remember a time without war.
After 5 years of civil war, 400,000 Syrians have died and over 12 million have either fled the country or been internally displaced (often referred to as IDPs, or internally displaced persons). Access to medical care in Syria has been severely disrupted: less than a third of the primary healthcare facilities (PHC’s) in Syria are still functioning, the majority of health professionals have fled the fighting, and hospitals are commonly targeted by drone strikes. Doctors of the World has been working in Syria since 2012, and we currently have 83 active staff in the country who are working tirelessly to fill the gaps in national health services.
Millions of families have crossed into Turkey and, while some have moved on to other areas of Turkey and Europe, many reside in small Turkish border towns like the ones we visited – Antakya, Reyhanli and Arac. The populations of these border towns have swelled since the beginning of the crisis: Antakya has grown from 200,000 to 500,000 and the Syrian town of Atmeh, once home to 200 people, has become a semi-permanent IDP camp of 50,000.
In total, Turkey is home to more than 2.8 million registered Syrian refugees – nearly half of which (1.3 million) are children and there are many more refugees who remain unregistered. In addition to our work inside Syria, Doctors of the World partners with organizations at the Turkish-Syrian border and throughout Turkey to provide free medical and mental health care to the refugees.
In Antakya, a Turkish town 70 miles from Aleppo, we have a team of 20 who oversee our operations in the area – including 5 Syrians who are themselves refugees. We support clinics – like the UOSSM mental health clinic that Ayesha attends – and hospitals, like the one where we met Majid, the father of a young boy being treated there. Emel Hospital, a rehabilitation center for those wounded in the war, sees 200 people a day and performs 2600 surgeries annually. When Majid’s youngest son was injured by a bomb, he left his older son and wife behind in Syria to make the dangerous trip to Reyhanli to seek treatment for the boy. The gravity of the situation was clearly visible on Majid’s face and in his words when we met them at Emel.
Yet, Majid’s family’s circumstances are not unusual; our team sees heart-wrenching situations like this every day. And in the small border towns of Antakya, Reyhanli, Arac and others, the situation is unlikely to improve in the near future. On our second day in Antakya – December 15th – the evacuation of roughly 50,000 civilians from the besieged city of eastern Aleppo began. Due to the city’s proximity to the Turkish border, we expect the numbers of refugees desperate to reach the relative safety of Turkey to increase in the coming weeks.