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Doctors struggle to help earthquake survivors in war-torn northwest Syria

After February’s devastating earthquake, the world poured emergency aid into Türkiye and Syria. But some of those who suffered the most were almost impossible to reach. they were Already fighting for survival a war zone. Recently, we traveled to this war zone in northwestern Syria to meet with an American medical charity that has braved the odds — bringing healing and hope.

On the night of February 6, death seemed a certainty… and life, a revelation.

10,000 buildings collapsed across northwestern Syria. In cities that had stood for millennia, the catastrophe was biblical.


An earthquake devastated Syria in February.

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but Rescue did not guarantee survival. Ambulances rush to a medical facility in critical condition after 12 years of bombing hospitals and killing doctors.

Dr. Samer Attar: I learned in Syria that you kill one doctor, it’s the same thing as killing a hundred soldiers. Because if you kill a doctor, you kill a nurse, you kill a paramedic, you blow up an ambulance, you destroy a hospital — you’re not just killing that person or group of people, you’re just taking away hope. from the community.

Samer Attar is an orthopedic surgeon from Chicago who volunteers for the Syrian American Medical Society—a US charity that operates 13 hospitals in the war zone with 23-hundred Syrian workers.

Dr. Samer Attar: So, when the war breaks out in Syria — health care providers, health care infrastructure, come under attack because war crimes work. Crime against humanity acts. If you can get away with it, you win.

He is referring to an unrelenting attack on health care ordered by Bashar al-Assad of Syria and his ally Vladimir Putin of Russia, who has sent his military into Syria under the guise of Ukraine. The The war started in 2011 through an uprising to end the Assad family’s 52-year dictatorship. But Assad responded by leveling his country with artillery, chemical weapons and barrel bombs dropped from aircraft. Fourteen million lost their homes. Half a million died. Northwest Syria is in the hands of the rebels and this is where we meet the Syrian American Medical Society known as SAMS.

Scott Pele: How many surgeries have you had?

Dr. Samer Attar: So, I did 23 on my first day. And I remember crying myself to sleep the first night. Because, it was right, the pain was so overwhelming.

We met Samer Attar six years ago where SAMS was building a hospital in a cave to protect it from attack. Today, the hospital is complete and has proven its resilience to earthquakes. Amani Zaklan is a SAMS nurse in a black and white hijab headscarf.

Amani Zaklan (Arabic translation): I was shocked by the scene…

He told us.

Amani Zaklan (Arabic translation): Dead bodies were scattered on the floor and there were (many). I could not have imagined the extent of the destruction and the death toll.

In northwestern Syria, the number was 45-hundred. In the cave hospital, the lost were laid out in hallways where a quick examination could change a life forever and disbelief suspend grief for a moment.


Many people needed medical care after the earthquake in Syria.

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Dr. Samer Attar: I remember a 22-year-old man who got engaged the day before the earthquake and his entire family left the next day. I remember a 16-year-old girl who was paralyzed from the neck down, and her family left and she’s on a mechanical ventilator in a hospital in Syria. Who is going to take care of her? and two orphaned teenage sisters, with lacerations to both legs requiring multiple surgeries, and a four-year-old with a traumatic brain injury on a ventilator.

Dr. Samer Attar: These nurses and doctors are the bravest people I have ever met. They had already been hit by barrel bombs and chemical weapons. But when they talk about earthquakes, I have never really seen so much fear, panic and anxiety.

We find those emotions in the story of a woman rescued from this collapsed apartment building. Thirty-five-year-old Zaynab Ali Al-Najib arrived at the cave hospital to tell Amani Zaklan a story she couldn’t believe.

Amani Zaklan (Arabic translation): I remember a woman who came to me and said that all her children had died.

Rescue workers were digging for the woman’s six children.

Abdo Tarek (Arabic translation): We reached the collapsed building and heard a noise. We tried to get the word out quickly, but our equipment and capabilities were limited.

Among the rescuers were Abdo Tarek and Sameh Fakhori, volunteers from the White Helmets, a force of 3,000 civil defense workers formed nine years ago to save victims of Assad’s offensive.


White Helmet volunteers are doing rescue work in Syria.

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Fakhri tells us,

Sameh Fakhori (Arabic translation): That girl was the first one we reached by digging the roof. Behind him were two children.

Abdo Tarek (Arabic translation): I went to him and cleaned the debris from his hands and feet and after an hour and a half we were able to get him out.

The surviving children were taken to the cave hospital — including 8-year-old Mohammad and 6-year-old Safa.

Amani Zaklan (Arabic translation): After about fifteen minutes…

Zaklan told us,

Amani Zaklan (Arabic translation): A girl came, followed by another girl. They had three.

Three surviving children aged six. We got them from their mother Zainab.


Zaynab Ali Al-Najib with her children in Syria

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Scott Pell: When your surviving children came, did it seem like a miracle to you?

Zainab Ali al-Najib (Arabic translation): Imagine that you lost all your children, all gone, and then some of them come back to you.

She told us that she had to leave one child at the surgery so she could attend another’s funeral.

Zaynab Ali al-Najib (Arabic translation): I try to talk to them, but no one answers me. The silence is unbearable. I miss seeing them and hearing their laughter. I wish I could meet them for just one hour. I pray that God reconciles us as soon as possible. They must miss us as much as we miss them. I hope to see them soon in heaven.

His tent stands where his apartment used to be. In northwestern Syria, the earthquake left 53,000 families with nowhere to go, expanding war-aging camps for the homeless.

Scott Pele: What are their needs?

Dr. Mufaddal Hamad: Wow! Don’t they need it? I mean look at this. Food safety is one thing.

Mufaddal Hamadeh is a Chicago oncologist and its former president Syrian American Medical Society. He told us SAMS spends $28 million a year on Syria. About 10 million of this is contributed by US foreign aid.

Scott Pell: What are your hopes for the future of Syria?

Dr. Mufaddal Hamade: I hope that they will find hope, that they will be able to believe in the future. They seem to have been left behind and the world has forgotten about them. I hope they can feel again that there are… that there are people who really care.

We have found moments of hope even in the unholy loss of Idlib, a city that has endured 12 years of war, and is still in rebel hands. Here, SAMS has built a hospital out of an office building. And in surgery a few weeks ago, Samer Attar repaired 12-year-old Suzanne’s arms and legs.

Scott Pell: What does that breakthrough moment mean to you?

Dr. Samer Attar: It means there are days where you struggle with helplessness and despair, and you wonder what exactly you’re accomplishing– and you feel like you’re trying to empty the ocean with a small cup because it never ends. , and suffering never ends and never seems to go away. But it’s those, those brief flashes that are enough to keep you going for another month.

There will be many months ahead with no end to the war.

Scott Pelle: Have there been airstrikes since the earthquake?

Sameh Fakhori (Arabic translation): Yes, there were airstrikes. The area experienced artillery bombardment four days after the earthquake.

Scott Pelley: How do you explain the cruelty of the airstrikes against the survivors of this terrible disaster?

The question, they thought, had an obvious answer. They told us, Assad is a criminal. With no prospect of peace, Dr. Attar now worries about the necessary follow-up surgeries, physical therapy and prosthetics.


Dr. Samer Attar

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Dr. Samer Attar: They will struggle. And what future do they have? I kept thinking about the girl on the mechanical ventilator, paralyzed from the chest down. Who — what will happen to him? Who — who takes care of him? Normally, in Syria, a big part of your community is family, but what do you do when your whole family is killed, and there’s no one else around. Who takes care of you?

Scott Pelley: You volunteered at this hospital during the war, you came back quickly after the earthquake, you volunteered to treat battlefield injuries in Ukraine. And I have to ask, why do you do this?

Dr. Samer Attar: It’s not just showing up to help. For me this mission is about bearing witness. They’re about connection, and solidarity, and support. Just being able to be here, be there, and look at these nurses, look these doctors in the eyes, and shake their hands, and be present with them, be on the ground with them. It just lets them know it’s a small world, they’re not alone, we’re all connected and when the world is literally crumbling and crumbling around you, all we have is each other. And that’s why I keep coming back.

‘Reciprocation’ and guts are enough to steal the winning moment.

But northwest Syria will be forced to ration. Eleven thousand people injured by the earthquake on the long journey – victims of a wicked and forgotten war – survived only by the compassion of humanitarian hearts.

To learn more about the Syrian American Medical Society, click here. To learn more about the White Helmets, click here.

Produced by Nicole Young. Field Producer, Celine Ozdemir. Field Producer, Mouaz Mustafa. Associate Producer, Christine Steve Broadcast Associate, Michelle Karim. Broadcast Associate, Matthew Reilly. Edited by Sean Kelly.

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