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The heartbreak of Syria up close

We are in a white van used to transport Syrian refugees to medical facilities, and the driver has beads of sweat coming down his face. Serious looking with dark sunglasses and a clean white professional shirt, he’s focused on getting us to the emergency room of a nearby hospital as fast as he can.

We couldn’t wait for a taxi or an ambulance anymore. Dr. Naveed Iqbal is calmly sitting in the passenger seat focused on Khalid’s breathing, holding an asthma inhaler and thinking how to approach a variety of potential medical scenarios. I’m the interpreter, sitting in the back seat next to Khalid and his mom. Khalid is sitting on his mother’s lap. Her hands are wrapped securely around him, and he is quite overwhelmed. (We are not using Khalid’s last name because of his family’s concerns about their security.)

“You could do it sweetie. Hang on. Every breath counts. Please God don’t take him.” I remind the boy of the story of the hero quoted and praised in Islamic history whom Khalid is named after. He smiles a warm smile that makes his big brown eyes gleam and exude childhood innocence even more.

I am on my first medical mission organized by SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society), where I went as an interpreter for medical personnel in Amman, Jordan. We were the largest team yet serving Syrian refugees at the United Nations’ Zaatari camp and in free clinics surrounding Amman. Many of the refugees left their homeland due to the continuous instability and the bombardment and shelling of innocent civilians.

People flee because they have no other real choice. Many shared stories of walking barefoot with children, belongings and savings for days on end, leaving behind their homes, families and country, searching for safety, a basic human right.

Khalid’s breathing is starting to slow down. His pupils begin to move to the right and look droopy. His head is wobbling and not stable. Breathing is exhausting him. It is a challenge. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Khalid is looking sweetly into my eyes. I try to engage him to help him continue breathing. “What color are my eyes? Are they yellow? Are they red?” As we look into each other’s eyes, I realize I will never forget him. My heart melts. My eyes begin to flood with tears. Hold them back! An innocent 5- or 6-year-old, a courageous, lovable, precious boy, stuck in this situation because of a brutal conflict and because so many global leaders have chosen to turn their backs on him and many others like him.

A respiratory infection developed in the camp triggered Khalid’s asthma, creating severe respiratory distress. The doctor saved his life by getting him an inhaler and taking him to the ER to give him oxygen and get him stable.

Now, as I try to make the transition back to my family, my work, my life, I find it hard to let go of my experiences, the people I met, the stories I heard, the need to advocate for the suffering refugees — and my Khlaid. I try to ignore the news coming from the social media campaign “#Aleppo burning.” But how can I?

On May 3, Dr. Joanne Liu, international president of Doctors Without Borders, told the United Nations Security Council, “Last Wednesday, airstrikes obliterated Al Quds Hospital in Aleppo. They blew apart at least 50 men, women and children. It killed one of the last remaining pediatricians in the city. A murderous airstrike. There were almost 300 airstrikes in Aleppo over the last 10 days. Civilians, often in crowds, were repeatedly struck. What are individuals in wars today? Expendable commodities, dead or alive.”

I decided to text Kareem Absi, a SAMS employee who worked with us and supported our mission: “I would really like to Skype with Khalid. Is this something you think you could arrange? I don’t know where they live but can find out. I will pay all costs. I’m currently working on getting him a nebulizer machine that is more helpful for his health. Please if it’s too hard, no worries.”

The reply: “Hi Asma. Please send me his phone number. I will visit him and let you talk with him. Any help I am ready.”

I’m anxiously waiting to hear back to see if he can set something up. I never thought the saving of a life could have such an impact on me.

Akhras is an educator who lives in suburban Chicago.

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