Chicago physician brings medical aid to his native Syria

People in Aleppo, Syria know the area as the “Crossing of Death.” The crossing divides the city, Syria’s largest, in half between the opposition and government. It’s a perilous place.

Every day, five to 20 people are injured by sniper attacks trying to make it to the other side of the city, he said. Thousands of people risk their lives every day, crossing the land to be united with their families, buy food or just go to work.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul, a Syria native and Chicago area critical-care physician who often offers humanitarian aid in his homeland, was called in to check on a 3-year-old boy at “M1,” code name for one of the Syrian American Medical Society’s field hospitals in Syria. Sahloul is the association’s president.

The boy was hit by a sniper attack while walking through the Crossing of Death. The boy was with his mother and sister, who had been killed instantly.

By the time Sahloul saw the boy, it was too late – the boy was brain dead. An hour later, he was pronounced dead.

Sahloul said he asked the medical director of the hospital what more can he do. The director simply asked for more coffins.

***

Amid the political crisis in Syria, there is a health crisis as well. There has been outbreak of polio, the crippling disease spread by virus, due to the government bans on immunizations and the blockade of humanitarian efforts, Sahloul provides as much medical relief and aid as he can.

Sahloul, who practices at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn, returned from his eighth trip to Syria last November. There, he met with doctors and hospitals to assess the current situation.

“Every visit, I would say the situation is worse than the last visit before,” he said.

Born and raised in Homs, one of the largest regions in Syria currently blockaded from humanitarian efforts, Sahloul, 48, left his home to study medicine at Damascus University School of Medicine before coming to Chicago in 1989 to finish his training at the University of Illinois at Chicago in pulmonary care. Ironically, one of his classmates at the university was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, an eye doctor by trade.

Dr. Zaher Sahloul during an interview with NPR. (Courtesy of Dr. Zaher Sahloul

Dr. Zaher Sahloul during an interview with NPR. (Courtesy of Dr. Zaher Sahloul

***

The last time Sahloul saw his parents and sister was in February 2011, one month before the demonstrations started in Syria.

“It’s painful,” said Sahloul, who has three children. “I talk to them by phone every week or so. Sometimes my mom cries telling me how she misses her grandchildren… It’s not easy.”

Due to the opposition regimes, Sahloul’s hometown was destroyed in bombings. His parents and sister had to move to another neighborhood. He said some areas were not even recognizable to him when he visited 2 1/2 years ago because they were bombed.

“It’s a terrible situation and it looks like they adapted,” he said. “They still refuse to leave. They know that if they left, they would not be going back… I cannot force them to leave so it’s a dilemma.”

According to the Syrian Network for Human Rights, 12,000 children have died and 11,000 prisoners tortured since the revolution started in early 2011.

“I can go on and on about these numbers, but that is not going to help these civilians,” Sahloul said. “I think we should care as human beings. If [the numbers] won’t move us, what will move us?”

Dr. Nouri al-Khaled is a cardiologist at the Advocate Christ Medical Center and a member of the Syrian American Medical Society. He has known Sahloul for more than 15 years.

“The massive work he does outside of the U.S. is magnificent,” al-Khaled said. “When he came to Chicago, the other Muslim society was somewhat isolated from the community. He moved forward with excellent dialogue and brought them in to be integrated in Chicago, all religions all ethnicities.”

As president of the Syrian American Medical Society, Sahloul created dialogue with al-Assad before the violent revolts occurred to bring medical aid into the country. Sahloul has also worked with Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn, sharing the views of major Arab communities to educate them and address health care needs.

Though al-Khaled has not gone on missions to Syria with Sahloul, al-Khaled closely follows Sahloul’s efforts especially in the campaign to help eradicate polio.

“They went home to home in the northwestern part of Syria,” al-Khaled said. “They literally delivered [the vaccination] home to home, child to child.”

Though the crisis in Syria seems far from the end, Sahloul will continue his efforts from Chicago. He said he is happy raising his children in the U.S., but he makes sure to teach them about their heritage, saying “you should not forget your roots, you should not forget your homeland.”

“That’s the most important thing for me – for people to look at the light at the end of the tunnel and hope that there will be rebuilding,” Sahloul said. “To go home, that they believe there is peace at the end of the crisis.”

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