Opinion: The international community has a moral obligation to help save Syria's mothers and babies

A medical missions volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society attends to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Photo by: SAMS

As the Trump administration charts its own foreign policy course and lawmakers work to decide U.S. spending priorities, I appeal to Congress to prioritize support for essential and lifesaving health care for people in humanitarian crises around the world. U.S. investment in global health is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do: it saves lives, it strengthens communities, and it extends our American values of goodwill, security, and prosperity.

Complex crises involving disease, conflict, and famine have been unfolding in all corners of the world, whether in Myanmar, Syria, Yemen, or South Sudan. I have seen firsthand that there is no substitute for essential health care services in these settings. Over the past seven years of ongoing conflict in Syria, I have had the privilege of knowing and working with Syria’s tireless and selfless medical workers. Dr. Farida is one of them. She was the last remaining female OBGYN in besieged eastern Aleppo City, refusing to leave until the very last minute.

Now, Dr. Farida is living and working in the Aleppo countryside. When I last spoke with her, she told me about one of her recent patients — a woman who had tried to give birth at home. As she was going into labor, this woman called a friend of the family, an unqualified midwife, to assist her. The patient had a complication, and ultimately, was forced to visit the hospital. By the time she reached Dr. Farida, she experienced a uterine rupture. Working with two nurses, an anesthesiologist, and three surgeons, Dr. Farida was able to save the mother, but tragically, the baby’s life was lost.

Her story was a grim reminder that women in Syria often go to extraordinary lengths to avoid what should otherwise be a safe haven: the hospital. A pregnant woman should never have to consider risking her life, or her child’s life, to seek medical care. But in Syria, that’s often the reality. The war’s conditions have made providing comprehensive reproductive health care extremely challenging. Attacks on health facilities have become a hallmark of the Syrian crisis: there have been 478 attacks since the beginning of the war. We’ve heard repeatedly that hospitals are the most dangerous places in Syria, making patients avoid visiting facilities. Syrian women, like Dr. Farida’s patient, prefer to face the risks of a home birth, rather than the threat of aerial attack.

U.S. humanitarian and foreign aid has allowed global health organizations and U.N. agencies to alleviate some of the suffering witnessed in Syria. U.S. support for my organization, the Syrian American Medical Society, and for one of our largest partners, the U.N. Population Fund, has helped us together provide critical health care services, including reproductive health care for women, girls, and families in Syria. In partnership, we continue to support birth centers, mobile clinics, safe spaces, and reproductive health clinics, and provide gender-based violence prevention and response trainings.

Our work is saving the lives of mothers and babies, the most fundamental of humanitarian impulses. In 2016, SAMS supported 66 reproductive health centers in Syria. The staff in these centers delivered nearly 40,000 babies and provided one-quarter of a million reproductive health care services. We have also established a midwifery school in Idlib to provide hands-on training and courses to safely deliver infants under challenging and dangerous circumstances. Support for women’s health programs, fortified facilities, and medical training is essential for protecting the lives of women and young girls in Syria. This experience is similar to needs unfolding in other crises, including Myanmar.

Humanitarian funding cuts, including to global health programs and to UNFPA, put thousands of people at risk, including countless women, young girls, and babies. The international community has a moral and human duty to keep helping Syrian civilians and supporting their resilience.

Many ask why we continue to do what we do. The reason is simple: it is our duty. As doctors, we have taken an oath to treat any and all patients. We have a moral obligation to try and save as many lives as possible, even if it means risking our own. In Middle Eastern culture, there is a saying: Mothers make nations. It is our responsibility to ensure these mothers are strong in the face of crisis.

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About the author

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    Dr. Ahmad Tarakji

    Dr. Ahmad Tarakji is a cardio-thoracic surgeon in California, and a former clinical assistant professor at Stanford University. He is currently the president of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a nonprofit, nonpolitical professional and medical relief organization that provides assistance to Syrians in need and represents thousands of Syrian American medical professionals in the United States. Dr. Tarakji is also a current board member of the SAMS Foundation.