Dr. Manal Faham runs a busy neurology practice in Dubai. She’s been working in the Gulf States for almost 30 years. But as she watched the tragic war unfold in her native Syria, she took leave from her practice to join doctors working to save the sick and wounded.
“I went to Damascus and found doctors volunteering with the Red Crescent,” she explains. Local people were forming new groups as well, including one that Dr. Manal co-founded. “Our volunteers were just medical students, but they had to save lives. Most of the injuries we saw were to the head and spine. The hardest times? Making the decision to amputate a patient’s limb.”
The group became known as Al Seeraj ("the lantern" in Arabic) for Development and Health Care, named in honor of a colleague captured by the Syrian government in 2012. No one has heard from him since.
“Dr. Seeraj was the first doctor who worked with us,” says Dr. Manal. “I will never forget helping him perform a surgery via Skype. He had to operate in a farmer’s house. People were too scared to go to the hospital; both the injured and the doctor could be arrested.”
Air strikes and artillery have hit hundreds of medical facilities since the start of the war. Surviving doctors and nurses often lack the training and experience to deal with the catastrophic war injuries. But they press on.
“Security issues are really hard in Syria. Many people have been killed. We lost a lot of people. This caused us a lot of pain, but people still want to help, no matter what the risk.”
People still want to help, no matter what the risk.
Despite their losses, Dr. Manal and her colleagues brave the violence to continue their work, bolstered by funding and staff support from the International Rescue Committee.
“We need to increase our capacity, our staff and our tools,” says Dr. Manal. “The IRC gives us the chance to do that. They care about a Syrian NGO (non-governmental organisation), born in the middle of crisis. Working with them helps me understand the real meaning of humanitarian work.”
Recently, in conjunction with the IRC, Al Seeraj performed an assessment to support their mission—strengthening Syrian clinics and hospitals—and take on the newer challenge of keeping besieged communities alive.
Survival under siege
In 2012, towns across Syria came under siege, leaving residents struggling to feed their families and go about their daily lives.
“No aid was coming in, and no civilians were allowed out,” says Dr. Manal. “People living under siege needed ways to survive.”
Al Seeraj started an agriculture programme to provide food and income in eastern Ghouta, near Damascus. Once home to over one million people, the town is now a living nightmare for the 400,000 who remain.
No aid was coming in, and no civilians were allowed out.
Al Seeraj helps 1,300 farmers whose businesses have been crippled by the siege to plant their land again with distributions of seeds, fuel, and money to rent farm equipment. Syrian farmers continue to grow wheat and vegetables, then sell their harvest in the local market, making enough money to begin another planting.
Dr. Manal is adamant that eastern Ghouta can survive with the right help.
“We have everything we need [for successful farming] in Syria. This is in our hands. We have skilled people and [arable] land to keep besieged communities alive.”
Preparing for what comes next
As the Syrian conflict stretches into its sixth year, Dr. Manal muses about Al Seeraj’s beginnings, and Syria’s future:
“In Syria, five years ago, there was almost a complete absence of local aid groups. We didn’t think that we would become a formal organisation. Now, many people are active, mainly in besieged and hard-to-reach areas, because lives depend on it. Al Seeraj needs to be part of that and teach others.”
The IRC has pledged to support Al Seeraj’s efforts to build on their current programmes and grow their leadership role.
“We are thinking about the next era,” says Dr. Manal. “We don’t want to be an organisation that is only alive in the fire; we want to be alive in the cease fire, and in the future. Something new is coming. What do we need to do to be ready?”