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I Run an NGO in Northwestern Syria. Our Last Lifeline Was Just Severed
Russia blocks UN humanitarian relief from reaching those who need it most
Wafaa and her son Abdullah walk among the remains of their home in the town of Sarmada situated in the northern countryside of Idlib, northwest Syria © European Union, 2023
By Dr. Zaher Sahloul, President and Co-Founder of MedGlobal
The UN Security Council failed this week to agree on the extension of a key lifeline for the people of northern Syria. The resolution in question would have kept open for at least nine more months a border crossing for humanitarian aid from Turkey to parts of Syria not under the direct control of the Syrian government. Russia objected. Another resolution, to keep the Bab al-Hawa border open for just six months, failed as well.
As a result, UN agencies cannot send aid to Syria until the issue is resolved, including healthcare-focused UN agencies like UNFPA, UNICEF, and the WHO. With more than 70% of Syria’s humanitarian resources coming from this cross-border UN aid, the gravity of what happened this week cannot be overstated. These political games by the most powerful will have a severe and immediate impact on the least powerful - the internally displaced and those recently re-traumatized by the catastrophic earthquake in February, for whom this aid is nothing short of a vital lifeline.
I am the president and co-founder of MedGlobal, a humanitarian INGO that provides emergency response and health programs to disaster-affected and low-resource communities in nearly a dozen countries around the world. We have been working in Syria for the last six years, donating over $500,000 worth of life-saving medications, medical supplies, and equipment, training about 300 medical workers, and serving over two million people. We stepped up our efforts during the COVID pandemic, building two major oxygen generator stations and launched “Operation Breath,” a model operation supporting both hospital and at-home solutions for COVID-19 patients in crisis settings across Syria. We work to expand hospital services, support health clinics in IDP camps, provide medications, medical supplies and volunteer doctors to those in need. Our frontline medical staff have seen first-hand the devastating impacts of the recent earthquakes on the region and the corresponding spike in need for ongoing medical and humanitarian assistance.
MedGlobal’s presence would not and will not be possible without the single UN-sponsored border crossing between Turkey and Syria, which is now in jeopardy. Most NGOs signed agreements with UN agencies to provide aid until the end of 2023 on the assumption that the UN’s support for Syria will continue as it has since 2014. The status quo - a single crossing, the uncertainty of six-month renewal intervals, and the amount of aid and funding were never adequate. Despite these limitations, brave Syrians and tenacious international volunteers worked tirelessly to do all they could with the little support they had. We all hoped for an extension of nine or even twelve months, but we instead lost even the bare minimum we had this week. For us, but especially for the people of northwestern Syria, this is a devastating worst case scenario.
The failure to renew the resolution could see many NGOs lose funding and access, and the nutrition supplies from UNICEF and monthly medical supplies from the WHO could be suspended. The suspension of this resolution will significantly affect MedGlobal’s operations and mobile clinics. Five primary healthcare centers, two hospitals and nutrition teams, and eight ambulances in Syria supported by MedGlobal could also be affected. These humanitarian aid disruptions will inevitably have compounding economic impacts. Price inflation will likely spike, affecting not just the locals but all service providers and international partners, dealing a double blow to our efforts.
Syria’s healthcare system is uniquely vulnerable to catastrophic disruption as a result of this week’s votes, with almost all healthcare activities in the country receiving at least a portion of their funding from the UN and NGOs. Due to the suspension of UN offices, hospitals, ICUs, mental health facilities, polio campaigns and vaccines will likely cease to function. In the time it will take the international community to come up with alternative solutions, many of the most vulnerable people will likely die as a direct result of these disruptions, especially those with noncommunicable diseases. This interruption comes at an especially terrible time after the earthquake re-traumatized the population. Turkish hospitals across the border that used to receive Syrian patients are now closed or do not currently have the capacity to take in new patients.
I want to end on a personal note. Syrians are telling MedGlobal doctors every day that they feel forgotten, like the world has stopped paying attention. They ask us to tell their stories when we go home, so that the world remembers, and we always promise we will - and we do.
The United Nations and the broader international community must act urgently to re-authorize funding and support for the Bab al-Hawa border crossing and reaffirm past resolutions and commitments. If allowed to stand, this week’s withdrawal of UN support would truly make the Syrian people’s worst fears come true - it would mean that the world really has given up on them. MedGlobal is not going to give up, the NGO community will not give up, and the United Nations must not give up.
Dr. Zaher Sahloul is the President and Co-Founder of MedGlobal, a humanitarian INGO providing health care in disaster areas. He is also a critical care specialist and Associate Professor in Clinical Medicine at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
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