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Syria: “My family was terrified... I thought that either I would be killed by the airstrikes or by ISIS.”

16 Dec 2015

Life can be extremely dangerous for doctors living in Syria. Dr Marwan worked with Médecins Sans Frontières in northern Syria, before he began receiving threats from Islamic State that forced him to consider his future.

“I was a paediatric doctor in Raqqa, Syria, married with two children. I ran a private clinic in a poor area of the city, as well as providing free healthcare to displaced people. In April and May 2013, there was an upsurge in fighting, airstrikes and random shootings. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) had gained ground in Raqqa, and the city was being bombed every day by government forces. One day I was standing with a neighbour outside my clinic when he was shot in front of my eyes. That was when I decided to close the clinic – it was just too dangerous. One week later, a barrel bomb hit a nearby mosque and also destroyed my clinic. Thankfully, no one was in the building at the time.

It was then I heard that Médecins Sans Frontières was conducting interviews for a vaccination campaign in Tal Abyad [100 km north of Raqqa]. After two days I heard that I had got the job. Meanwhile a string of opposition groups was taking it in turns to control Raqqa, and by the end of 2013, Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was trying to take over the area. After a couple of months, ISIS decided they needed to control hospitals, clinics and medical supplies in Raqqa. People began to feel threatened: most international organisations left Raqqa and many Syrian doctors fled the country. 

There was nowhere to hide. I began to realise that my only way out was to leave Syria.” 

ISIS came to my house

I decided to open a clinic in my house to provide some assistance. As a doctor, my motto was: ‘Treat people, but also try to protect yourself’. Soon, ISIS members started to come to my house for medical treatment. I wasn’t comfortable with this, but I was acting according to my medical ethics: to treat all patients regardless of ethnicity, religion or politics. But the appearance of ISIS members in front of the house was terrifying, for my family and myself. After a couple of months, when the US-led coalition started bombing ISIS, they forced me to go with them to treat their wounded. My family was terrified that I would not come back. I thought that either I would be killed by the airstrikes or by ISIS.  

Life in Raqqa was terrifying. During the day we lived with the government’s airstrikes; at night there were coalition airstrikes. The sound of the jets was so loud it was like an earthquake. A close friend was killed by a government airstrike. One day ISIS put pressure on me to join their hospital. Most doctors had left Syria and they needed me. But I refused. As a result, I received threats. There was nowhere to hide. I began to realise that my only way out was to leave Syria. I thought, ‘I’d prefer to go on one of the death boats than risk staying here’. 

Life had stopped for me

I realised that life had stopped for me, and [what] I had to do was save my family. I worried that in Syria my children wouldn’t have a life or even get an education. I started to plan my departure. I planned to travel to Turkey then take the boat to Europe, heading for Holland. My wife was in the final month of pregnancy with our third child. She was so exhausted that it was difficult for her to travel. So the idea was that I would go with a friend, and once I had immigration papers, my family would follow me. Leaving Raqqa was not easy, with fighting ongoing between so many different armed groups. But we finally reached Izmir, Turkey, which was very crowded. People were sleeping in the streets, starving – people who had given all their money to smugglers but had failed to leave. We heard many stories of boats sinking. It was hard to look at the sea knowing that soon we might drown in it.   

"I’d prefer to go on one of the death boats than risk staying here"

A long journey

When the time came, it was a difficult decision to get onto the overcrowded rubber dinghy. Some people were crying and others were praying – everyone has their own way to deal with fear. We arrived on the Greek island of Farmakonisi and then travelled from Greece to Macedonia and then Serbia. By that time I hadn’t had any proper sleep for seven days. My dream was to find a pillow to sleep on, water to take a shower and a phone with which to call my family. In Belgrade I finally managed to get a local sim card so I could call home. I talked to my wife and daughter, but my son refused to talk to me. He felt that I had abandoned him and it broke my heart. From Belgrade, we travelled to Austria, and finally bought train tickets to Amsterdam. My wife gave birth in October, soon after I arrived. I talk to my family every day, but my son still refuses to speak to me. Each time I talk to my daughter, my heart starts racing like a running horse. It is really difficult to hear the warplanes in the background, knowing that at any minute they will drop their bombs, knowing that my family is terrified but I’m miles away and I can’t protect them.”  

Names have been changed