MSF in Syria: Unwelcome but still providing aid

MSF tent. Over the past two months, Médecins Sans Frontières has treated more than 300 civilians and rebel fighters in an improvised trauma center in Syria.

Although it’s not officially allowed to operate in Syria, Médecins Sans Frontières has been doing just that: The international medical charity has treated more than 300 civilians and rebel fighters over the past two months in an empty house that has been turned into a trauma center.

The hospital was opened in June after MSF was able to identify a suitable location in an area with some degree of stability, Filipe Ribeiro, head of MSF’s office in Paris, told Devex. For security reasons, Ribeiro did not disclose the location of the hospital, whose operations are not authorized by the Syrian government. He also declined to discuss how the group was able to send staff and move supplies within Syria.

MSF has tried to negotiate access within the country several times but its requests were repeatedly denied by the Syrian government, Ribeiro told Devex, adding that he still wrote to let the Syrian government know of the hospital, sans location or staffing.

“They responded to us saying it was illegal, that we were not allowed to work in Syria and that we should leave the country,” Ribeiro said.

MSF is ready to pull out of Syria “anytime,” according to Ribeiro. He did add that the group is looking at ways to expand its operation and identify areas where its assistance is needed. MSF is ready to open another hospital within Syria if given the opportunity, Ribeiro said.

This is not the first time MSF has undertaken a project in a country where it is unwelcome. Ribeiro said the aid group has done it in the past and is still doing it — albeit rarely.

Working with local doctors

Even before opening the emergency hospital, MSF has been supporting networks of Syrian health professionals. The group provided pharmaceutical supplies such as medicines and dressing materials to these networks. MSF was also able to send small teams of international doctors.

The hospital inside Syria was set up in partnership with a group of local doctors. It is currently staffed by seven international MSF members and 50 Syrian health professionals that include doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians, among others.

The hospital has 12 beds that can be increased to 30. The level of activity in the hospital, according to Ribeiro, depends on the degree of fighting in areas near it. While there are instances when hospital staff works round the clock, there are also quieter times, Ribeiro shared.

People learn of the hospital mainly through word-of-mouth and MSF’s local partners. As of mid-August, the agency said its team there has treated more than 300 patients and performed at least 150 surgeries. The most common injuries were from gunshots, mortar fires and shells of explosive devices.

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About the author

  • Ivy Mungcal

    As former senior staff writer, Ivy Mungcal contributed to several Devex publications. Her focus is on breaking news, and in particular on global aid reform and trends in the United States, Europe, the Caribbean, and the Americas. Before joining Devex in 2009, Ivy produced specialized content for U.S. and U.K.-based business websites.

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