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SETF team member, Celine Kassem, Visiting Syria after 12 years

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I have not visited my home country in 12 years. When I think about Eastern Ghouta, I think about the swing my grandpa used to push me on as a 4-year-old- that Assad regime bombed and destoryed. If I were to visit today, I would only see ashes and dust. During the summertime in Damascus, I would walk the streets of Souq Al Hamidiyah, where I would get pistachio-dipped ice cream. If I were to visit today, I would only hear the Russian language spoken around me.

 

My memories of Syria were beautiful, but if I were to return home, I would immediately be arrested for my degree from a foreign University and my activism for the people of Syria. As a member of the Syrian Emergency Task Force, I had the opportunity to join the team’s bi-monthly trip to the border of Turkey and Syria, where we deliver essential aid to our humanitarian projects and meet with various NGOs working towards a free Syria.

Our team was accompanied by the wonderful M. Night Shyamalan Foundation  who has been an advisor, friend, and supporter of SETF for years. When we arrived in Gaziantep, we first met with the Bahar organization. The team at Bahar works tirelessly to supply humanitarian aid to the Northern part of Syria and they assist us with aid delivery inside of Syria. They frequently visit our humanitarian projects in Turkey and in Syria and have become an essential component of our on-the-ground operations.

Our visit with Bahar was followed by a meeting with the Syrian Interim Government, where we were briefed of the situation in Gaziantep and on the ground in Syria. Our team continues to work closely with the Interim Government as they rebuild the liberated areas of Northern Syria.

Next was we visited the White Helmet headquarters. SETF has worked with the White Helmets for years, their heroism keeps the flame of the revolution alive. Our commitment to continue to collaborate with the White Helmets is strong.

Our next stop was at the House of Healing, SETF’s rehabilitation center which provides a safe place to live, warm meals, and transportation to and from medical appointments. Each patient is given special permission by the Turkish government to enter Turkey on a case-by-case basis. As SETF’s newest humanitarian project, the House of Healing will have it’s one year anniversary next month. Since the official adoption, our team has moved the project to a newer, four story building that can accommodate a larger number of people and offers more space for existing patients to heal and recover from the horrors of the war. A colorful playroom, a physical therapy room with equipment, a rooftop courtyard, separate floors for women and men, an adequate kitchen,  and a front desk with security cameras all play into a more sustainable project that allows for a higher living standard for the patients themselves. There’s even a room specifically reserved for SETF team members when they visit for meetings or aid delivery. I had the honor of staying there for two nights while in Gaziantep.

Dr. Munir serves as the primary doctor at the House of Healing. He walked us through the house describing each patient’s case in great detail. Some patients had lost one or more of their limbs due to airstrikes hitting in close proximity to their homes. Others had kidney injuries, due to the lack of clean and safe water. A large amount of patients suffereed from eye injuries due to bombs exploding nearby. These patients were either waiting on corneal transplants or had already become blind. Other patients suffered from a cancer diagnosis due to the chemical toxins in the air from artillery. Although the adult patients in the house have exhibited the utmost bravery and strength in the eyes of destruction, meeting with the child patients brought emotion out of me that I have never experienced.

One young girl, Fatima , has a life threatening heart condition that has paused her growth and  prevented her body from sustaining itself. She’s the same age as my little sister, Sham. They reminded me of eachother, both beautiful, kind, and full of life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You expect these patients to have lost all hope. However, they laughed and played with us just as a friend or little sister would. No matter how severe their condition, the House of Healing was prepared to provide the best care possible for each patient that entered its doors.

The next day, I woke up prepared for another day of meetings. However, at the last minute, our executive director, Mouaz Mosutafa, told our group that we would be heading to a liberated city in the north of Syria, Aleppo. I had no words and my thoughts immediately raced back to the memories as a child in my beautiful Syria. Before I could even grasp the idea that I would be returning to my home country for the first time in 12 years, I was in a van on the way to the border.

Accompanied by Turkish forces throughout the trip, they ensured that our visit was as safe and secure as possible. Our first stop was the industrial city of Al-Rai. Al-Rai was overtaken by ISIS and then liberated, becoming a central industrial location supported by Turkish and free Syrian governments that have invested into rebuilding the area.

I had imagined all of the liberated areas to be nothing but rubble, just like the rest of the country. However, I soon remembered that Syrians are indestructible – they will rebuild. There were newly opened factories that provided jobs to the surrounding communities. The local council leaders expressed to us the internationally need to invest in these liberated areas in order to uplift these communities and grow opportunity for the local people.

There is a new, free Syria being rebuilt right in front of my eyes and I couldn’t believe it.

We then visited one of the eight local hospitals in the area. The local hospital in Al-Rai was brand new. It was 10,000 square meters with 24 clinics, 56 doctors, 42 specialists, 18 incubators, 9 on-call general doctors, and 4 dentists. The hospital offers general, neural, heart, digestive, and dialysis surgery and performs at least 15 surgeries a day. A medical school was soon to open in a new building on the campus.

Shortly after, our group visited a renovated three level secondary school that specialzies in science and technology. It was incredible to see a once-destroyed city being beautifully rebuilt with emphasis on education and opportunity.

Our next stop was Azaz, a city once destroyed by the regime but continues to be rebuilt. We visited on the anniversary of the city’s liberation from the regime and celebrations engulfed the city. The local council served us delicious lamb Mandi and we met with civilians who told us their stories of loss and destruction due to the brutality of the regime. They were so grateful that we were there to witness their testimonies and they asked us to share their message with the world.