Catholic medical student sees Syrian war refugee crisis up close
Story and Photos by Tom Tracy
When he came to study medicine in Jordan’s capital through a scholarship program for Holy Land Christians, Tareq Nasrawi expected to see the heart disease, diabetes, breast cancer and basic public health concerns.
But the 21-year-old Roman Catholic and native of Jerusalem, who studies at the Jordan University of Science and Technology and now works in several hospitals in Jordan, is also seeing the human suffering and medical crisis associated with a civil war raging unabated in neighboring Syria since 2011.
The influx of Syrian refugees pouring into Jordan and seeking health care peaked a few months ago when Nasrawi said he observed a crescendo of war-related cases turning up at the King Abdullah University Hospital, north of Amman along with Jordan’s peripheral hospitals.
“All the hospitals were filled with Syrian refugees,” Nasrawi said. “We had a conference at King Abdullah Hospital where they talked about Syrian cases, saying that in the history of the hospital – since about 1999 – they have not encountered such severe cases as they have with the Syrian war.”
Fractured bones and penetrating wounds caused by heavy weaponry meant Jordanian orthopedic specialists are treating injuries that were never seen here until now, according to Nasrawi. They also treated a fair amount of routine medical cases from among the estimated half-million Syrian war refugees in Jordan as well as women and children suffering ailments specifically brought on by conditions in crowded refugee camps.
Until recently, insurance companies and private funds have been paying for much of the Syrian medical expenses in Jordan but as the crisis has widened and with more refugees pouring into refugee camps, hospitals in Jordan have had to restrict refugee health care.
The Zaatari camp in Jordan, is sometimes described as the country’s fourth largest city.
Jordan’s government said last week that it needs $850 million in additional international assistance should the country’s Syrian refugee community surpass 1 million as has been forecasted by UN agencies.
Recent estimates are that Syrian refugees now conservatively number 580,000 since the conflict began and of those some 78,000 Syrian students who entered public schools are projected to cost the country $200 million, according to local news reports. Others have been trapped by bombing near the Jordan-Syrian borders and face starvation and medical neglect.
“Our hospital took the decision not to accept the refugees unless they pay part or all of the expenses,” said Nasrawi. “That is unfortunate because medicine is not all about expenses it’s about helping people but at the same time the hospital cannot function without some liquidity, the ability to buy equipment and pay the doctors’ expenses.”
“It’s especially sad when dealing with the children in most cases, it is unfortunate to know that the image they will always remember as part of their childhood is what they have faced during these crises,” he added.
Medical students at the teaching hospital donate clothes to help the Syrian children in refugee camps, while student representatives go to the camps and distribute cloths for families in need, according to Nasrawi. A second student event included cash collections used to supply families with milk other essential needs for their babies and children, and more faculty-student volunteer efforts are in the works.
Nasrawi said he first wanted to pursue a life in medicine after volunteering to learn first aid at a Jerusalem hospital in the 11th grade. His parents supported their son’s interest in attending medical school and through a parish contact applied to the Franciscan Foundation for the Holy Land for financial assistance, which paired the youth with a sponsor — a husband-wife doctor team in Louisiana who help pay his tuition.
The Foundation asks all of its scholarship recipients to stay in the Holy Land region as a way of investing in local Christian communities and stemming the emigration of Christian families to Europe and elsewhere.
Nasrawi said his plan is to finish school and move back to Jerusalem to continue a specialty, possibly neuroscience or cardiovascular medicine.
“It also depends on the opportunity,” he said. “I want to be there in Jerusalem. I would like to find a residency position at Hadassah Medical Center where I went for training and which is one of the largest medical centers in Israel; I believe it would be a great opportunity to work in my own home country.
In Jordan, Nasrawi participates in student-organized public health campaigns, conferences, student medical associations. He is grateful for the chance to study medicine in Amman and has twice had a chance to see Jordan’s King Abdullah II up close during his official visits to the hospital.
Nasrawi wants to rejoin his family in Jerusalem one day. “I see myself helping my own community and helping people in a profession in which you treat everyone regardless to ethnicity, nationality, color – they are all the same,” he said. “This is something I really respect about medicine – you respect everyone and encounter many people.”
“The Old City is such a unique place; I feel gifted that I was born there in the same place of Jesus’ resurrection — you really don’t appreciate that unless you leave and want to return.”
As for his patrons in the U.S., Nasrawi said he is grateful for their investment – one he promises will bear lasting fruit and benefit future generations.
“I update them every year about my progress and they have also been in contact with me about their intentions to visit the Holy Land one day.”
“When there are people fighting for you and making your dreams come true, it makes you want to give back to the community,” said Nasrawi.
Photo: Jerusalem native Tareq Nasrawi, who is studying medicine in Amman, Jordan, through the Franciscan-affiliated scholarship for Holy Land Christians, has seen a variety of Syrian war injuries and refugee camp-related illnesses over the past several years at several hospitals he works in around Amman. Photo by Tom Tracy.