Syrians Anxious About Worsening Humanitarian Crisis As Americans debate military intervention, the UN's refugee agency has warned that Syria could be on the 'verge of the abyss.' Host Michel Martin discusses the millions of Syrians who have been displaced by the conflict with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society, and Rima Kamal, the Red Cross' spokesperson in Damascus.

Syrians Anxious About Worsening Humanitarian Crisis

Syrians Anxious About Worsening Humanitarian Crisis

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As Americans debate military intervention, the UN's refugee agency has warned that Syria could be on the 'verge of the abyss.' Host Michel Martin discusses the millions of Syrians who have been displaced by the conflict with Dr. Zaher Sahloul, president of the Syrian American Medical Society, and Rima Kamal, the Red Cross' spokesperson in Damascus.


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Later this hour, a newsmaker interview with a man who's taken on one of the most prominent posts representing American evangelicals.

First though, we want to turn our attention to Syria. President Obama has been briefing congressional leaders about the apparent use of chemical weapons by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Human rights critics say the attack may have killed more than a thousand Syrians. But while advocates of military action say it would send a powerful message to the regime, humanitarian groups have warned that it could also make a fragile situation even worse.

An estimated 2 million Syrians have fled the country and millions more Syrians are internally displaced. We decided to focus on this aspect of the story, so we've called Rima Kamal. She's the media spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross based in Damascus. And back with us is Dr. Zaher Sahloul. He's a practicing critical care specialist. He's president of the Syrian American Medical Society. That's a U.S.-based group that's been providing medical support inside Syria and to Syrian refugees outside the country. Welcome to you both. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.


RIMA KAMAL: Thank you.

MARTIN: So, Ms. Kamal, can I just get a brief word from you about the atmosphere in Damascus right now?

KAMAL: Of course we're bracing for an escalation of events. There's an anxiety. There's uncertainty of what is to come. People do not know what exactly to prepare for. The conflict has already affected the lives of everyone in this country and what might come could potentially also trigger the military needs and escalate things even further.

MARTIN: Do people have their basic needs met in Damascus right now? I mean, are they able to get food when they need it, water when they need it, medical attention when they need it - basic physical needs? Are people able to take care of those at the moment?

KAMAL: Things look very different for people in Damascus depending on where they live. So pretty much, and to put it simple, people who live in government controlled areas, do manage to get hold of what they need. People who, on the other hand, are living in areas controlled by the armed opposition, which includes large parts of rural Damascus are actually suffering severe shortages of medical supplies, food and other types of necessities.

MARTIN: And Dr. Sahloul, while you're based in Chicago, I know that you were in Jordan this summer. Could you talk a little bit about the conditions that Syrian refugees are facing. We do understand that many, many people are internally displaced, but people who are outside of the country at the moment, what are their circumstances, particularly in Jordan where you were?

SAHLOUL: It's a terrible situation. Most of the refugees have been in Jordan now for more than two years. Many of them lost hope that they will go back to their homes soon. Even if the crisis ended right now in Syria, maybe half of the refugees, if not more, will not be able to go back to their neighborhoods because their neighborhoods and villages were destroyed. There was a lot of hopelessness and a lot of psychiatric problems. Our organization tried to help refugees dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychiatric trauma. But that's very common, especially among children and the women.

The Zaatari camp, which is one of the largest camps in the world, you know, is amazing in the scale of the number of refugees you've seen there. It's the fourth largest city in Jordan already. More than 130,000 refugees live in Al-Zaatari camp. There's - everywhere you look, there are tents. But at the same time, there is a lot of resilience and creativity. So refugees managed to build shops and shopping places. And there is a place, which my wife compared to the Magnificent Mile here in Chicago, where you have shops that's selling candies and toys to the children and ice cream and things like that. So that's in the middle of a place that should reflect the desperation, but there's always hope.

MARTIN: How are basic needs met there? I mean, how are people living there? Do they have jobs? Are people assigned tasks while there to kind of keep them occupied? Is there education available for the children?

SAHLOUL: There are some organized groups among the refugees. They manage to organize themselves. So yes, there are some type of education to the children. It's not, of course, ideal. Many of the children who've been in the camps do not have consistent secular education for the past two years or three years, right now. Women also are doing some type of activities. And also, of course, NGOs are playing a large role in that.

At the same time, most of the people are, you know, wasting their time doing nothing, which is not good, especially for their psychiatric health. And, you know, living in a camp where everyone is refugees, and in the middle of the desert where you don't see any green trees or flowers or things like that, is not healthy. And we're worried that we are losing generation of children who will grow up very angry at the world who forgot them.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we're talking about the humanitarian situation already being faced by Syrians. We're talking about Syrians both in the country and refugees who've been living outside the country. We're speaking with Dr. Zaher Sahloul of the Syrian American Medical Society and Rima Kamal of the Red Cross. Ms. Kamal, you were saying that the Red Cross attends to Syrians' basic needs like, you know, food and water, as they do, you know, in the United States. But you're saying that that's become a lot more difficult just over the past year. Can you talk a little bit about that?

KAMAL: The conflict has entered into a more deadly phase as of July 2012. So as of then, we started to see a large-scale destruction of the infrastructure in the country, a breakdown of essential municipal services in areas also controlled by the armed opposition, or areas under heavy fighting. There's also, as I mentioned, huge shortages of food and medication and medical supplies in a number of areas.

So we've tried to kind of work around the clock to come to these needs, but the scope of the needs is so large by now, and it is honestly impossible, also, for a single militant organization to just be able to wrap its head around those needs. And I think as much as humanitarian assistance is needed, it is just patching up the situation that just keeps getting worse by the months.

MARTIN: Are people there aware that military strikes are being contemplated, are being debated right now?

KAMAL: Of course. This is something that is overshadowing every single aspect of life in Syria today. People have already, you know, left a number of neighborhoods. There is reported, also, a large number of influx of refugees to the Lebanese borders, to the Jordanian borders, as a result of that. So although nothing has happened as of yet, people are very anxious. People are very concerned, not only about the escalation, but also it's potential aftermath.

MARTIN: And, Dr. Sahloul, when we spoke to you back in May, we talked then about what doctors believed had been documented - of seven chemical weapons attacks that had already occurred. But you were telling us that, after having spoken to Syrian doctors last week, you said these - the alleged attack that the administration has been discussing is a game changer. Why do you say that?

SAHLOUL: It's because of the scale. Of course, no one expected that you will have this large number of victims. I mean, we've been reporting these chemical weapon attacks over the past nine months or so, since December when the first chemical weapon attack reported in the city of Homs. All of these incidents or attacks were consistent with exposure to nerve gas, based on the symptoms that patients have been showing and the doctors were reporting to us.

There were more than 20 attacks since December of last year, but this is, of course, the largest scale attack you had. Unfortunately, many victims among the children and the civilians in a very congested area, and that attack happened in three major cities and caused, too - caused a lot of panic, of course, and chaos among civilians.

The doctors who are treating the victims told me that the hospitals and the physicians were not ready for such scale attack. Although we were preparing them and they were preparing themselves, but this area has been under siege by the Syrian troops and the regime for the past year or so. So it's very difficult to smuggle to that area protective gear for the physicians or the medical personnel or the first responders. But unfortunately, we had even members of the first responders who died because they did not have the protective gear. So they died in duty while trying to take care of the victims of that attack, which is very unfortunate.

MARTIN: As we enter what may be the next phase of this conflict, which has been going on for quite some time now, Dr. Sahloul, what would you most want Americans to know who have not been as connected to this as you have been?

SAHLOUL: I mean, I want my neighbors and my fellow Americans to know that this crisis has been going on now for three years, and that 99.5 percent of the Syrians who were killed throughout the crisis - and that's close, about 120,000 right now - did not die because of chemical weapon attacks, but they died because of conventional weapon attacks. There is daily bombing and shelling every day, including in the last few days.

Only a couple of days ago, after the chemical weapon attack in Damascus, there was very painful incident where there was aerial attack on the city of Ariha and about 20 schoolchildren died with what looks like napalm-like bomb. There should be an end for this crisis, and I hope that if there is such response from our administration to the chemical weapon attack, which I believe that it should have been done a long time ago - but hopefully, this will lead to the end of the crisis.

MARTIN: Ms. Kamal, a final thought from you. Is there something you would particularly want Americans to understand about the situation as a person who's on the ground there, from your perspective - from the humanitarian perspective?

KAMAL: I think, foremost, I'd like to express my sadness over the fact that many of us have become desensitized with the (unintelligible) of Syria in terms of the total number of people killed or injured on a daily basis. This has really become something we're tapping into on a daily basis and we're not actually being affected by that anymore.

And we should all remember that behind this number of 100,000 there's mothers, there's fathers, there's husbands, there's wives, there's little boys and little girls. And of course, speaking as a (unintelligible) organization, we are extremely concerned of the potential then of escalation of violence in the country and what might also ensue. And we fear that, already, when we are battling such huge shortages of materials and supplies in the country and people's needs are unmet, we fear that this will only trigger further catastrophes in Syria and only affect the lives of people who have already paid a very heavy price for close to two years and a half.

MARTIN: Rima Kamal is the media spokesperson for the International Committee of the Red Cross. We caught up with her in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Dr. Zaher Sahloul is a practicing critical care specialist. He's president of the Syrian American Medical Society, which is a U.S.-based group that, as we mentioned, tries to support medical colleagues working both in Syria and with refugees outside of Syria. We caught up with him at member station WBEZ in Chicago. Thank you both so much for speaking with us.

SAHLOUL: Thank you.

KAMAL: Thank you.

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