After fleeing war in Syria, UK-based doctor volunteers in Ukraine

Dr Tirej Brimo arrived in Britain as a refugee and went on to qualify as an emergency doctor in Cambridge. He recently spent several weeks volunteering with a medical team in western Ukraine.

Dr Tirej Brimo fled Syria in 2012 and arrived in Britain as a refugee in 2013. He is an emergency doctor in Cambridge and recently returned from seven weeks vlunteering with a medical team in Lviv, Ukraine. Photo: NHS Cambridge University Hospitals
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An emergency doctor in the UK who fled the war in Syria a decade ago spent his holiday time volunteering to help treat those fleeing the war in Ukraine.

Tirej Brimo, a Kurd, was in the final year of medical school at Aleppo University in northern Syria when he made his escape.

A year later part of the university was destroyed by shelling.

After going to neighbouring Lebanon, Dr Brimo crisscrossed the Middle East before finally arriving in Britain in 2013 as a refugee.

He graduated from St George’s Medical School at the University of London in 2017 and is now an emergency doctor at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Dr Brimo decided to use his annual leave to volunteer with a medical team in Ukraine.

He spent seven weeks in April and May working firstly at two border crossings between Ukraine and Poland before moving to Lviv city in Western Ukraine, where he helped to establish a medical clinic near the main train station.

In his first week on the ground, Dr Brimo saw 339 patients for a range of treatments but said that “burdened faces and tearful eyes” were what he saw on most people.

“It only took a few seconds into the consultation for these emotions to come out. They had been through a lot, they had seen a lot. Some of them lost their loved ones, some of them left everything behind, and some of them were so in shock that they were not aware what was happening around them,” said Dr Brimo, who has since returned to work at the University of Cambridge hospital.

Dr Tirej Brimo graduated from the University of London in 2017 and is now an emergency doctor at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, part of the Cambridge University Hospitals. Photo: NHS Cambridge University Hospitals

“It was really difficult when people came into the train station to collect relatives who had died in the conflict – a father, a sister. As a doctor, this is where I felt most helpless.”

According to the figures provided by the United Nations on 27 May, a total of 4,031 civilians have been killed and 4,735 injured in Ukraine since the war started on February 24. The actual figures are believed to be much higher.

When he first arrived to Lviv, Dr Brimo found it surprising that air raid sirens didn’t illicit reactions from people anymore.

“They walked in the streets as if these sirens didn’t exist. It is only when you looked in detail the impact of war could be observed - overcrowded streets, schools full of refugees and ambulances working day and night.”

Every day, hundreds of people fleeing escalating violence in the eastern front arrived at Lviv’s train station where Dr Brimo’s team dealt with everything from minor ailments to wounds and emergencies.

Seeing the trains full of refugees who “just want to leave everything behind” was a stark reminder of what he too had to abandon during the war in Syria.

The western Ukrainian city of Lviv in Ukraine has become a central rallying point for people fleeing the intense violence on the eastern front but it has also been subjected to heavy shelling in recent weeks. EPA

“Sadly, the atrocities of war are similar. The horror in peoples' faces, back packs that have been filled in a rush, and children who have lost their spark, are some of the images that stay with me. War is like a nightmare you can't wake up from, while praying for a miracle that just doesn't happen,” said Dr Brimo.

Eleven years of war in Syria killed at least 350,209 people according to UN figures in 2021, although an unofficial UK-based monitoring group put the death toll at over 600,000.

Having “ran away” from Syria, the emergency doctor, who has volunteered in the Greek Islands’ refugee camps many times, said he wanted to choose “a different destiny” in Ukraine by “standing up for what I believe in.”

“As a doctor in the humanitarian world, our fight is different. We look after those wounded by all kinds of trauma, those who have been forgotten about, those who feel rejected by life and its atrocities,” said Dr Brimo.

A group from Addenbrooke’s Hospital and the University of Cambridge has developed video tutorials for colleagues in Ukraine to help them manage trauma cases during the conflict.

They are being hosted on a new open access clinical guidance web site, which is a collaboration between the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Cambridge Global Health Partnerships and the Royal College of Emergency Medicine.

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Updated: May 30, 2022, 1:28 PM