Veteran Syrian war doctors put skills to use in Ukraine conflict

Syrian physicians all too familiar with Russian aggression rushed to Kyiv, Kharkiv and Lviv to offer medical expertise and chemical weapons training

An ambulance drives past a burnt building in the eastern Ukraine city of Kharkiv. AFP
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As Russia invaded Ukraine and began the systematic destruction of entire cities and towns, members of the Syrian medical community living overseas saw worrying parallels to what their homeland has experienced in recent years.

Seeing an urgent need, several Syrian doctors were among the first to enter Ukraine to try to alleviate suffering and prevent Ukraine from becoming another Syria, which has been devastated by 11 years of civil war and Russian military intervention.

Radiologist Mohamed Tennari made a 50-hour overland trip from the French city of Dijon to Kyiv, pushed by a powerful urge to help.

“I had to go,” said Dr Tennari, who worked for 8 years with the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS).

He told The National that his journey carrying medical equipment wound through Germany then Poland, where he was initially stranded in the frigid cold at the Polish border, as he lacked the right papers to enter Ukraine.

He sent the equipment on and entered Ukraine weeks later with help from the Syrian-Ukraine Network (SUN), a coalition of Syrian and Ukrainian organisations, which helped him get a visa in Warsaw.

After entering Lviv, Dr Tennari then drove to Kyiv where he deployed last month with a group of Syrian doctors from SAMS in hospitals near the capital.

There, he helped victims in critical care — even as Russian shelling continued nearby.

Asked how the Syrian medical crew was received by the Ukrainians, Dr Tennari describes a feeling of mutual joy.

“They were overjoyed to see us and we were happy to help … it also showed them that we Syrians are there to help and not to fight alongside Russia.”

Moscow, which joined Syria's conflict in 2015 and backed the regime of President Bashar Al Assad, declared soon after invading Ukraine that Russian forces would be joined by Syrian fighters.

“Our presence with them altered that view; they also appreciated the experience we bring from our years of dealing with Russian bombing,” he said.

It helped that he speaks Russian and French, but most important was his experience in war-torn Idlib. He has so far made three trips into Ukraine.

Doctors scrubbing in for surgery. Photo: Dr Mohamed Tennari

For years, Dr Tennari worked in the Syrian town of Samreen rescuing civilians who had come under suspected chlorine attacks by the Assad regime.

He addressed the UN Security Council in 2015 in a closed session about the horrors he witnessed in Idlib.

Reliving the experience in Ukraine was traumatic but necessary, he explained.

“We don’t want Ukraine to become another Syria,” he said.

“We owe a debt for all those on the outside who came to our help in Syria. Now we must help too.”

Almost 7,000 kilometres from Dr Tennari’s home in Dijon, another Syrian doctor, Zaher Sahloul, recounted his journey to Lviv from his office in Chicago.

Working in the western Ukrainian city in February, he offered medical lessons learnt in a number of global conflict zones. He also has expertise in the effects of chemical weapons.

“We don't learn that in medical school,” Dr Sahloul told The National.

Dr Sahloul is president of Med Global, an international organisation dedicated to working to end health disparity. He brought nine members of his team as well as medical supplies to Lviv.

“The Polish airlines were very generous. They allowed us to bring 167 pieces of luggage, all of them containing life-saving medical supplies that are much needed in Ukraine. [The Ukrainians] told us that they needed training, especially in chemical weapons,” Dr Sahloul said.

The Syrian-American doctor is no stranger to conflict, having led missions to his home country, to Gaza as well as to remote areas in Yemen.

But in Ukraine, he saw something different.

“You have about five million refugees within the first few weeks of the crisis. This is a biblical number,” he said.

The number of displaced people is more than has been seen at any time since the Second World War, according to the UN.

Attacks on healthcare facilities resembled what he saw in Syria, he said, and he tried to draw on his experiences in Idlib and Aleppo to share knowledge with Ukrainian doctors.

“It’s important to share this knowledge that we accumulated painfully in Syria where more than 300 times chemical weapons were used, including nerve gas, choking agents and chlorine gas,” he said.

In Lviv, Dr Sahloul conducted chemical weapons training in three hospitals and in virtual seminars attended by about 220 physicians.

Similar to Dr Tennari’s experience, the Syrian-American doctor received a warm welcome in Ukraine.

“Syria was a prelude to the Russian war in Ukraine … they know what we have been through,” he said. He added that in Ukraine, he felt the same resilience that he saw in local communities in Syria.

But he laments what he says is a double standard in this conflict: western countries have rushed to send weapons to Ukraine and help Ukrainian refugees while dragging their feet over the course of the Syrian conflict.

“I'm happy that the world is responding the way they are to Ukraine. I hope that we listen more to [Ukrainians] who are asking to protect themselves,” he said.

Both Dr Tennari and Dr Sahloul are planning future trips to Ukraine even as they struggle to bring attention to what they call the forgotten war in Syria.

Updated: May 02, 2022, 9:19 PM
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