Syrian medical society in Philadelphia provides help for war-torn home

Children get oxygen in Syria, following a reported gas attack. "People have the capacity to be very, very monstrous," says Philadelphia doctor Rim Albezem.
Children get oxygen in Syria, following a reported gas attack. "People have the capacity to be very, very monstrous," says Philadelphia doctor Rim Albezem. (AP, File)
Posted: August 25, 2014

A child struggling for breath after a nerve-gas attack; a nurse attending to victims of barrel bombs; the tears of a Syrian doctor after a missile destroyed his hospital.

Such are the images that haunt the days and nights of Rim Albezem, president of the Philadelphia chapter of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), a humanitarian-aid group of medical professionals of Syrian descent.

"People have the capacity to be very, very monstrous," Albezem said Tuesday, the same day Islamic State extremists released a video depicting the decapitation of American journalist James Foley, who was abducted in Syria two years ago.

SAMS wants to be an antidote, said Albezem, 46. "It shows the capacity for good."

Formed in March, the Philadelphia chapter is the second newest link in the 17-chapter network, which was founded as a social and educational organization in 1998 and now has a national budget of $14 million from membership dues and charitable donations.

The money funds two dozen diesel-powered field hospitals, trains emergency-care medics, pays healthcare providers inside parts of Syria that have been off-limits to the Red Cross, and supports trauma care for refugees at border clinics in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Using Skype, SAMS doctors in the U.S. help guide Syrian doctors through unfamiliar surgeries.

"SAMS fills a huge gap" by supporting the doctors who do the dangerous work of providing care in the opposition-held areas of Syria, which are under bombardment by government forces, said Jaber Alanzi, 31, a resident in urology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, and a member of the group's Philadelphia chapter.

Horrific injuries

More than three years into the civil war between troops loyal to Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and rebels demanding regime change, estimates put the death toll at 115,000 to 170,000, horrific injuries abound, and the number of people displaced in and outside of Syria is roughly 10 million, or half the country's population.

Albezem's parents and siblings got out years ago.

"Honestly," she said, "that's why I can be more vocal than other Syrian American doctors, who say they can't help because they fear for their family members inside."

A cardiologist with a home in Newtown, Bucks County, Albezem was born in Damascus and immigrated to the United States in 1990 to complete her medical training at the State University of New York campus in Brooklyn. Now, the married mother of one young daughter maintains a busy practice in Bucks and Mercer Counties and devotes every spare hour to raising awareness about the conflict in her homeland.

Speaking after a recent fund-raiser at her home, where SAMS national president Zaher Sahloul, of Chicago, presented a talk and slide show to a gathering of doctors and hospital administrators, Albezem said Syria's need is more pressing now that Islamic State fighters control a swath of the country and Syria has to compete for aid alongside the crises in Ukraine, the Gaza Strip, Israel, and even the spread of Ebola in western Africa.

"The whole world is responding to Gaza," she said. "Nobody is responding to Syria except those of Syrian origin, and that's sad."

Focused on awareness

There are no good estimates for the Syrian-descended population of Pennsylvania, says Albezem, but the number is small compared, for example, to parts of Illinois and Michigan.

The most recent estimate by the Arab American Institute, a Washington nonprofit that promotes Arab empowerment in the United States, found that 50 percent of Pennsylvania's 66,000 residents who in U.S. Census surveys identified an Arab ancestry traced their roots to Lebanon and Syria, but didn't distinguish between the two. Most live in and around Allentown, Bethlehem, Wilkes-Barre, Scranton, and Philadelphia.

In Chicago, they have thousands of Syrians, Albezem said a bit covetously. "Whenever they want to do an activity they can mobilize the community."

At the moment, she said, the Philadelphia chapter has fewer than 20 members and is focusing its awareness campaign on a diverse audience using brochures and speakers.

On Aug. 30, the group will host a 5K road race/fund-raiser in Whitehall Township, near Allentown.

On Sept. 27, at Hidaya Masjid, 123 E. Luzerne St. in Philadelphia, local and national speakers will hold a teach-in on Syria's plight.

The message, said Albezem: "Syria is still there and people are still dying."

Humbling experience

For now, Albezem raises money and reaches into her own pocket to pay for brochures. She coordinates the donations of medical equipment and supplies in the hope that the Philadelphia chapter one day will be able to send a container of supplies to the Middle East.

And she walks the walk, having recently returned from a week at a refugee camp in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Syria's northern border.

She conducted training sessions for about 90 Syrian doctors whose career development is derailed by the violence. She made rounds among patients missing limbs, and with serious spinal cord injuries.

And she witnessed patients whose problems are caused indirectly by the war - end-stage renal disease with no opportunity for dialysis, or the lack of chemotherapies to cure simple cancers.

"It was a very humbling experience," she said, "for some of us who treat patients here in suburbia."


mmatza@phillynews.com

215-854-2541

@MichaelMatza1

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