"I can smell Syria"

How would you choose to celebrate the end of your nearly 19 month hospital stay, your emigration to start a new life in another country and the departure from other war-wounded friends and comrades? 

How would you choose to celebrate the end of your nearly 19 month hospital stay, your emigration to start a new life in another country and the departure from other war-wounded friends and comrades? 

This now 15-year-old boy, lets call him Abdullah, lost his childhood and early adolescence when injured in Syria in 2013. His time in our hospital in Ar Ramtha was initially spent in recovery from extensive surgery to his leg. Further complicated by osteomyelitis (bone infection) and leg shortening he spent time in another MSF hospital in Amman before being transferred back to us to prepare for his departure.

None of these movements between hospitals and to other countries were simple. We take this so much for granted. But how can an unaccompanied minor and political refugee easily achieve any of these things?

Abdullah's story is complicated and well documented elsewhere but I shall tell you about his last few days with us.

“I want to go on a picnic” Abdullah told his favourite counsellor...” and I want to take x, y and z patients and a, b and c doctors and nurses...”  Oh that’s easy to arrange I hear you say, but consider that his favoured picnic pals are a paraplegic Palestinian and two bilateral amputees, one nine years old, the other a father of five!!

Our project coordinator worked tirelessly to gain permission with the local authorities for us to take this band of explorers out into the countryside one early evening before sunset. We were 12 in all and we bundled into our MSF ambulance and 4x4 and headed off with fizzy drinks, nuts & snacks and a blanket. Our navigator was one of the ward doctors who drove us off towards the border of Jordan with Syria.

“I can smell Syria” was the cry. Excited chatter and laughter mixed with slight anxiety for those who had not been out of hospital for months let alone being in spitting distance of their beloved Syria. A peaceful spot was found and we disembarked our unlikely band of revelers over road -side barriers onto the parched grass.  

It was interesting to watch their faces. There was huge emotion particularly for the older father as he sensed the proximity of his family only a few kilometers away yet impossible to reach. We munched on the goodies and perhaps each separately reflected on other picnics we had in quieter times. 

Those able, made escapes down the embankment and across a small ravine to ‘the other side’, picked flowers for us and returned triumphant. Too soon it was sun set and we made our way back to the hospital with wonderful memories of a stolen afternoon together. It’s something about sharing food together and sharing an experience. I have the pressed hibiscus flower in my diary, now devoid of scent, but it’s presence will evoke the experience of our time in the Jordanian hills. 

So, our reluctant teenager left us amid tears of sadness and joy at the airport and now we hear stories of Abdullah's new life and his continued medical needs and we wish him lots of luck.

Meanwhile the others keep smiling, occasionally crying and hoping for their own discharge back to their families.

But yesterday was fun. In our rehabilitation facility shared with Handicap International, it was Sports Day! Excited groups of patients and staff raced in wheel-chairs, threw balls, manoeuvered on new prostheses and squealed and shouted for their team. Who said competition was divisive?  I was sitting in a wheel chair, a plastic spoon in my mouth, a ping-pong ball balanced on that and my task was to negotiate the obstacles to get to the other side of the room and back without dropping the ball. Hilarious and humbling.  My ‘team’ won the race and we shared in the celebrations in whatever way we could. No translators needed for the expressions of joy and applause. The universal language of success.

Meanwhile of course, the patients keep arriving in our emergency department and we all do our best to intervene surgically, medically and psychologically to help.   

There has been a subtle change to the types and numbers of patients we are seeing with more brain and disfiguring maxillofacial injuries and fewer isolated open fractures. Unfortunately we are not equipped to manage neurosurgery here so this means further transfer to other hospitals.  

Some of our patients endure long journeys inside Syria before they reach us so it is tragic that they have to continue onward before they can have definitive surgery. Luckily, once stabilised and repaired we get them back again for their continued care and rehabilitation.

My time in Jordan with MSF will soon be over and I will be leaving. I am lucky to have the freedom to come and go, to choose where to have my picnics but I shall never forget my special afternoon out, shared with my colleagues and new friends here in Ramtha.


Patients' names have been changed to protect their privacy.