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From refugee to humanitarian surgeon

19 Jun 2017

Dr Haydar Alwash grew up and studied medicine in Iraq, but was forced to flee as a refugee during the uprisings that followed the end of the First Gulf War in 1991. It was then – in a refugee camp in neighbouring Iran – that he began working for Médecins Sans Frontières. 

“There were around 70,000 people in the camp and many of them knew me from my years working in the hospital in Kalar. People started bringing their sick and injured to me, but I had nothing to help them with, no medicines at all.”

He soon met staff from Médecins Sans Frontières who were looking for doctors to help run a health facility. “They brought in two trucks full of medical supplies and within two weeks we had opened a small hospital with 18 beds housed in two large tents. We looked after inpatients and ran a vaccination campaign. I think we served the population in the camp very well and I worked at the hospital until I left the camp five and a half months later.”

"I think we served the population in the camp very well and I worked at the hospital until I left the camp five and a half months later.”

Responding to the Syrian conflict

Dr Alwash later moved to New Zealand, and has since completed 17 field assignments for Médecins Sans Frontières, in countries including Syria, South Sudan and Pakistan. In 2014, he worked in Ramtha, a city in north-east Jordan just five kilometres from the Syrian border, providing lifesaving trauma surgery to people wounded in the Syrian conflict. 

Trauma surgery in Yemen

His most recent assignment took him to Yemen, where he spent six weeks as a surgeon in Medecins Sans Frontieres’ trauma centre in Aden, Yemen.

“It was the second time I worked in that centre, the first was in August 2015 during the escalation of hostilities. This time, I saw that many things outside the hospital had changed. Aden was quieter than in 2015. The frontline was far away from the city. There were more people in the streets, children had returned to schools and markets were full of life.

But our hospital was still full of patients, with lots of emergency cases. Few big hospitals have reopened, so the trauma centre in Aden remains the first place to go for newly injured patients. The medical facility was as busy as it was during the start of the war. The beds rarely remain vacant for more than a couple of hours.” The Aden Trauma centre opened in 2011 as a response to the increasing instability in Yemen. When the civil war reached Aden in March 2015, all health structures closed within a week, but the MSF hospital remained fully functional, due to the commitment of the Yemeni staff who continued to work despite the insecurity in the city.

“During my six week stay in 2015, several mass casualty events happened. The same staff exhausted by the daily strenuous work jumped into action and responded professionally to the mass casualty victims.”

Trusted by the population

Dr Alwash noted how the hospital staff had grown into their roles when he returned in 2017. “In 2017, I saw that the hospital team had matured with experience, enriched with expertise and enjoys the trust of Aden population, because of its continued capacity to provide the best of care to victims of violence.”

For members of the medical team a day in the hospital usually starts with the 8am medical meeting, in which a quick summary of hospital activities in the last 12 hours is provided. Swiftly they move to the intensive unit to review the critical patients. After that the team divide into two, with one going to operating theatre all the day (and may be a few hours of the night), while the second continues to review hospital inpatients and any discharged patients.

“On the faces of our patients I saw countless tears of anxiety, fear, stress and anger for what was happening outside the hospital walls. On the faces of MSF staff I saw only smiles and signs of job well done. But also from the Yemeni people, in this very difficult situation, an incredible strength and resilience.” Dr Alwash recalls one particular patient, an eight-year-old girl, who was treated for several weeks in Aden trauma centre for injuries she sustained in an explosion that killed her parents.

“When she was ready for discharge medically we decided to keep her temporarily as she had no parents anymore! In these few days, we noticed several new visitors to her and many people approached MSF offering to provide her a home. It was amazing to hear and see how such a big tragedy was met with strong community support and social coherence.”