The ultimate mercy mission - is it too late to help Syria?

Mr Ayman Jundi, consultant in emergency medicine at Royal Preston Hospital
Mr Ayman Jundi, consultant in emergency medicine at Royal Preston Hospital
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by Jacqui Morley

Dr Ayman Jundi knows a red line when he sees one. He does not need to be guided to it by President Barack Obama.

Dr Jundi works in Royal Preston Hospital’s Accident and Emergency department by day and night - and campaigns to help Syria in his spare time.

Syria special - therapist Deirdree McCormick teaches a patient with a brain injury how to walk after fitting a foot drop splint

Syria special - therapist Deirdree McCormick teaches a patient with a brain injury how to walk after fitting a foot drop splint

The co-founder of Lancashire based charity Syria Relief has already been helped by physiotherapists and occupational therapists from Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

Ayman, 56, is from Syria. His mother, 76, and his father, 90 in October, and extended family, cousins, still live there.

The caring doctor is worried sick about them. At one time, he says, they lived in a “relatively safe part of town” near the embassies.

“Today nowhere in Syria is safe,” he declares.

In this photo provided by UNHCR officials and taken on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Syrian refugees cross the border toward Iraq at Peshkhabour border point at Dahuk, 260 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up an emergency transit camp in Irbil, where around 2,000 refugees are camping out and UNHCR officials say some thousands of refugees have been streaming into northern Iraq, many coming across a newly-constructed pontoon bridge over the Tigris River at Peshkhabour. (AP Photo/HO)

In this photo provided by UNHCR officials and taken on Thursday, Aug. 15, 2013. Syrian refugees cross the border toward Iraq at Peshkhabour border point at Dahuk, 260 miles (430 kilometers) northwest of Baghdad, Iraq. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has set up an emergency transit camp in Irbil, where around 2,000 refugees are camping out and UNHCR officials say some thousands of refugees have been streaming into northern Iraq, many coming across a newly-constructed pontoon bridge over the Tigris River at Peshkhabour. (AP Photo/HO)

The world knows it. Would it be safer had David Cameron won approval for military strikes against President Assad’s ruthless regime?

“I would find it difficult to support or defend military action against my country,” Ayman responds.

“The moderate voices have been shouted down by the extremists.

“In the beginning the revolution was peaceful. People went out on the streets in their thousands to call for change. They were shot at by the president’s men and answered with chants and slogans - Syrians are absolutely brave.

“But the arguments of the moderates were undermined by the constant killing, and the ongoing lack of support from the West, so the extremists became stronger.

“It is harder now to step back from the abyss but it is still possible.

“The evidence is overwhelming that Assad’s regime is behind the chemical weapons.

“The West should have exerted pressure upon Russia and China, Assad’s allies, to put an end to it all.

“A peaceful transition of power might have been possible. Now it is too little too late - but there are other ways to help.”

Ayman is doing what he does best. He’s tending the sick. His own specialist interest is in emergency planning and mass casualties.

“When you have very limited resources you fall back on your training,” he admits.

“It is gut wrenching to see what is happening in my homeland.

“But we will do what we do best. “We will pick up the pieces.

“We will deal with the consequences on an individual basis and an organisational level.

“Syria Relief is proud and humbled by the generosity of people who go out of their way to help us.”

Earlier this year Ayman was pictured smiling at the start of a sponsored run for Syria Relief.

The irony is not lost on him. Many of his countrymen are now running for their lives.

“I am one of the lucky ones,” he says. He left Syria at 28, shortly after qualifying as a doctor.

“I worked in the Lebanon until the Israeli invasion. I went back to Damascus. I came to the UK in 1985. The UK feels like home except in times of crisis such as this.

“I am desperately attached to Syria. You can go out of Syria but Syria never leaves you.

“It is beautiful, it is ancient and it is heartbreaking to see it all being destroyed.”

Back in March 2011 Ayman and friends - including Dr Mounir Hakimi then based at Blackpool Victoria Hospital - started relief work there.

Ayman explains: “About a month after the uprising myself and a group of friends went out to see what we could do.

“The regime had started killing in the towns in the north of Syria.

“Thousands were fleeing across the border. The Turkish authorities tried to limit the influx and a lot were stranded on the border living in the open exposed to the elements.

“We collected money from family and friends and bought blankets and other things.

“We soon realised this was going to be the long haul.”

They set up the charity Syria Relief in September 2011.

They have since raised £3.5m.

It goes a surprisingly long way in Syria - particularly when other medics muck in.

A team of physiotherapists and occupational therapists from the Vic flew out last November to mend broken limbs and help heal broken minds.

They paid much of their own way, the charity the rest.

The local team were based in Turkey helping refugees.

They worked in makeshift clinics with make-do-and-mend facilities, creating their own splints and crutches and supports from scratch.

Ayman accompanied them. As an A&E doctor he’s conditioned for crisis but nothing on this humanitarian scale.

“It was awful but I couldn’t praise the team from Blackpool enough. They are lovely warm easy going people who muck in and do what’s needed without complaining.

“They made every penny, every moment of time, count.”

The team returned in March this year - again to Turkey.

Senior physiotherapist Suzanne Lane says: “We no longer thought we could help, we knew we could help. It was saddening how bad things had become. It was all very hands on and distressing but you get on with it.”

She admits they would go back “in a heartbeat” after witnessing events of recent days.

“We talked of going back later this year but there have been car bombings where we worked. The area is no longer safe. We can’t justify the risks.

“We’ve stayed in touch with the people we met, trained, and hope the lessons can be put to good use. We care about them. But they’re losing hope too.”

Those stuck on borders or fleeing either Assad or the rebel forces face other foes. The need for food, water, sanitation and shelter are paramount, says Ayman.

The war has got a lot dirtier with widespread reports of napalm as well as chemical gas being used.

Medics know injuries could not have been caused by more conventional weapons.

Ayman says his colleagues in Syria felt impotent against the scale of the attacks.

“They ran out of antidote so quickly.”

Syria Relief is just one voice in the midst of the international clamour for help.

“But our strength rests in the fact most of our projects are within Syria,” says Ayman.

“Our trustees regularly go in. Many of the larger charities operate outside Syria. They work with the refugees. Because of our links most of the funding is used within Syria . We’re on the spot.”

l The charity’s website is www.syriarelief.org.uk

Syria: What our 
politicians have to say

Blackpool North and Cleveleys MP Paul Maynard has spoken of his “great dread” at the situation in Syria.

He explains: “There is no perfect outcome here, any more than there was or is in Egypt. What we will end up seeking is a least-worst outcome. We have to assess where Syria contributes or does not contribute to our national interest, as well as assessing the humanitarian aspect of what has occurred.

“I would be deeply concerned at any arming of the rebel forces, and strongly against any commitment of UK ground forces to Syria. I believe both would be counter-productive.

“What is being discussed is about upholding existing law against the use of chemical weapons. Action has consequences, but so does inaction, and if by failing to uphold international law we embolden dictators elsewhere that they too can deploy chemical weapons with impunity, that would be grave indeed.”

Blackpool Labour councillor David Owen says “The red line is a smokescreen to redraw the power balance to suit Israel and the West.

“British governments have already meddled too much in pursuit of short term supposed British interests. The Sykes Picot agreement carved up the Middle East but failed to draw the boundaries so as to create states where any sense of togetherness and nationhood could exist.

“The UK can gain – rather than throwing away any influence we might have for good in the region - if we took a step back from America who once again seems eager to show its overwhelming fire power almost just for the heck of it.

“The whole business should be under UN aegis. If Russia/China veto any proposal for intervention – we should keep out.

“It is imperative to speak out against any British involvement in Syria, and to do our utmost to prevent the Government from intervening militarily.”

* jacqui.morley@blackpoolgazette.co.uk

@jacquimorley