“Seeing Syria again, despite its sadness, there’s still a sense of pride”

Dr Ammar Darwish has been part of the Foundation’s family for over a decade. Ammar volunteered as a trauma surgeon in Aleppo when Syria, his home country, was oppressed and targeted by the Assad Regime. There, he met our Co-Founder David, forming a brotherhood like no other. Here, Ammar shares how it felt to return to Syria to lead our earthquake surgical mission.

Faculty Lead: Dr Ammar Darwish. Faculty Trainers: Dr Pete Mathew, Dr Mahmoud Hariri

When I heard that an earthquake had struck northwest Syria and Türkiye, I was in Ukraine training doctors on the frontline of the Russian war. Colleagues from Syria were frantically calling loved ones seeking news. I knew then that we needed to find a way to reach the affected Syrians, as Syria’s already weakened healthcare system would buckle under further strain.

After the earthquake, it became clearer how essential it was that we reach Syria.

Thousands left with unattended injuries

We immediately started to receive reports from the ground that survivors were facing complex trauma wounds in huge numbers. Crush wounds, large, open injuries, serious infections that have led to the need for amputation. As we expected, there was and remains an enormous need for surgical training and support.

There was also a need for psychological support – hope, confidence, and to know that they are not alone.

Unfortunately, it took about a week before international aid entered northwest Syria to help victims. There were thousands of casualties and to have this delay, in an already crumbling healthcare system due to 12 years of war, was a disaster within a disaster for the Syrian people.

This devastating delay and the lack of equipment, medical supplies and resources meant that more people were suffering with severe injuries left untreated and many developed further complications as a result.

After humanitarian organisations were granted entry, we joined forces with Action for Humanity, formally Syria Relief, to plan a mission like no other. We wanted to use our time as effectively as possible, achieving as much as we could during a week-period.

Maximum impact

We delivered our world-class hostile environment surgical training (HEST) course in Arabic to local surgeons. We used our cutting-edge, one-of-a-kind teaching equipment, including our human wound simulator model, Heston, and printed vessels, kidneys, hearts and bowel, to arm them with skills for treating complex wounds.

This was our first course whereby 90% of it was delivered by local Syrian training faculty – surgeons we had trained during the conflict that started in 2011. It was a proud moment for the Foundation.

Feedback has been wonderful and encouraging – that our training is very important, their skills have improved, and they wished they’d had this training before.

We also upskilled and empowered 9 of the surgeons to become surgical trainers themselves so they could share their new, advanced skills with peers in their hospitals. They were very excited. We had approximately 23 trainees who received our HEST course, included newly qualified surgeons and other specialised surgeons from 9 hospitals in northwest Syria.

Action for Humanity worked all hours to get us safely into the country. They were outstanding and very well informed. It shows preparedness is really important for a smooth mission. They also led the operating side of our joint mission, performing surgeries on about 80 patients, including children, over 7 days. An exceptional feat, treating severe injuries from both the war and earthquake.

Proud to be home

Physically entering Syria was something else. Going back to Syria was a remarkably moving day for me. Crossing the border, seeing Syria again, with all the sadness and atrocities that have happened, there remains a sense of pride. It was a very special feeling.

Meeting the doctors and seeing those we’ve worked shoulder to shoulder with and trained before was very moving. Reunited after years, yet our bond remains the same. Even those who had not met David were asking about him – they are so keen to learn from him. It was a very, very emotional moment.

Welcomed with open arms

The Aqrabat Hospital, where we delivered our training, was fantastic. They changed the whole setting of the hospital to accommodate us and our course.

On the day we left, the hospital held an Arada for us, which is a typical Syrian parade and song to show us their gratitude for the work that has been done. Leaving Syria was quite emotional for everyone.

The need for surgery, training and support continues. The earthquake has put Syria back under the spotlight – and this time I hope it reminds in the public’s minds. We must work to restore Syria to its former glory, before the ravages of conflict and collapse.

We’ll be back to do our part.

Support our training in Syria