Syrian-Canadian surgeon risks life to help wounded in war-torn homeland
Dr. Anas al Kassem recently spent four hours operating on a wounded fighter in Syria, saving the life of a man without knowing whether he was a rebel or a member of the oppressive Syrian regime.
And it didn't matter. The Syrian-born Canadian surgeon has been risking his life in his war-torn homeland to treat patients on all sides of the conflict, whether they are civilians, rebels or members of the government forces.
The need is great, he said, because major aid groups such as the Red Cross and Red Crescent can't operate in the dangerous Syrian war zone where the forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad have been trying for months to suppress a rebel uprising.
"Nobody else is doing it. When you go there you see people; kids, civilians, rebels, soldiers, bleeding to death. No international community organizations are on the ground, someone has to do the work," the 39-year-old trauma surgeon told CTV's Canada AM Tuesday.
The Oakville, Ont.-based surgeon has travelled to Syria on 10 separate occasions since March 2011. He flies to Turkey, loads a truck with donated medical supplies, then smuggles them along remote, secret routes to Syrian towns where the need is greatest.
Often he will set up makeshift field hospitals where anyone with an injury is welcome, or residents will offer their homes as impromptu clinics where people can receive treatment, regardless of their affiliation or religion. Two patients, lying side by side in one of his hospitals, could be from opposite sides of the deadly battles being waged across Syria.
Al Kassem, a father of five, is vice-president of the non-profit organization Canadian Relief for Syria. One year ago the group joined the Union of Syrian Medical Organizations, which includes members from France, Germany and the U.K. -- all with the goal of getting medical aid into Syria.
The group has offices in neighbouring Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon, where medical supplies and volunteers are gathered together for smuggling operations into Syria.
Al Kassem said the danger is high. Seven hospitals set up by the group were destroyed in one province alone, and al Kassem himself has been named as a target of the regime because of his illegal work in the country.
That risk pales in comparison, he said, to the dangers faced by Syrians. He estimated 200,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, and roughly 200 are killed and 1,000 more are injured every day that the fighting continues.
"When I compare what we have here, the blessings we have here, and the dire situation there just because they don't have a physician or a surgeon to take care of simple wounds sometimes, I decided we have to keep going until this ends," he said.
Al Kassem said he is returning to Syria in mid-February with plans to train more physicians to help treat the wounded.
As it turned out, the man he operated on for four hours was a member of the Syrian regime. But to al Kassem, the only thing that really matters is that he is alive.