As geopolitical gridlock stymies international aid in Syria, expatriates and Americans of Syrian descent are taking it upon themselves to travel to the region and medically assist refugees on border towns and residents inside Syria.
One of them is Omar Chamma, who resides in Fountain Valley with his wife and three children. He works a full-time job in house construction, but lately his brother helps with the business, as Chamma leaves almost twice a month now for Syria. In the conflict's beginning, Chamma had heard conflicting reports about the amount of international aid provided to Syria, so he decided to visit the border himself at the end of June. He traveled to a Syrian town bordering Turkey and what he saw there changed his life, he says. Since then, he has traveled five times to Syria via Turkey, delivering medical supplies, and he will leave for his sixth one this evening with two Syrian American doctors.
At what point did you decide that you needed to go back to Syria and help deliver supplies there?
The first time I went, I saw a severe lack of medical supplies. I saw some doctors operating on a kid's face, adding stitches without anesthesia and the kid was screaming. They cut a plastic bag into very thin strips to make sutures and they were using regular house needles to do stitches. They were begging me to bring in medications. I didn't notice any organizational presence on the border, neither the United Nations nor Europe were helping the injured people coming across. I didn't see anybody from anywhere. The only ones doing something good was the Turkish government, who drove the injured in ambulances directly to the hospitals. I've seen some people die from a simple wound right in front of me.
When you visit neighboring towns, what supplies do they need most?
Everything and anything that has to do with clotting blood, like bandages and gauze. Local anesthesia is extremely important, as well, because the doctors perform a lot of operations in houses or in the streets. Because what happened in Syria is that everybody who's badly injured bleeds to death. Once, I saw a guy in another border town with his leg cut; the doctors wrapped it up with with part of his shirt and tied it down with his shoe string. Unfortunately the guy didn't make it. He lost too much blood.
How has the situation on the bordering towns changed over the course of your travels to Syria?
There's lack of foodstuffs, baby milk, medication, and I still don't see any big organization that's really offering people anything over there. It's mainly a small organization or people like me coming from Europe, the U.S. or Asia.
How much longer will you continue to deliver supplies to Syria?
As long as there is a need for me to go back, I'll keep going. As long as I have some support from doctors in the U.S. and from friends, I'm going to keep going. We went to Aleppo once, and we delivered two luggages of supplies like Vicodin, surgical sutures, antibiotics, painkillers, anesthetics, off-the-counter medications, and the doctor started crying. He told me they've been waiting for this stuff for one year. Everyt ime I go, I tell my family that this is the last time I'm going. I say I cannot afford this because I pay my own ticket, the car, the hotel, the food and this is taking a lot of money and time from my family. Once I get there, however, and I see the people still have needs and their needs are growing, I tell myself that I have to go back because I do see my changes making a difference. As small of an effort as it is, if I can save one person's life there, I think it's well worth it.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
I would like the world to give more for Syria. I've seen thousands of people paralyzed, and they have no wheelchairs, no one to help them go to the bathroom. I think the world can give a little more attention to Syria. If they don't want to help for military or political reasons, they can bring food and medication. There's big countries in the world that can provide way more than what I'm doing in terms of delivering medicine and aid.