Dr Nizar Hammodeh of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations Dr Nizar Hammodeh of the Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations Photo credit: Humanitarian Policy Group
An interview with Dr Nizar Hammodeh, Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations
by Tania Cheung November 2013

A British-Syrian doctor on diaspora-led medical relief efforts, neutrality and humanitarian access in Syria

‘It’s been very difficult’, acknowledges Dr Nizar Hammodeh of the Union des Organisations Syriennes de Secours Médicaux (UOSSM) [Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations], a medical relief organisation founded by health professionals in the Syrian diaspora. ‘Hopefully it will improve soon.’ For many humanitarians working long hours is second nature, whether driven by the humanitarian imperative, personal belief or sheer will. But Dr Nizar’s drive to dedicate himself to the humanitarian response in Syria is all the more pronounced as it is his people who are currently in need, on both sides of the battlefield. As he says, “Because of my Syrian descent, I understand the situation and have this passion; it’s natural – it’s my people, it’s my land’.”

The Syrian backgrounds of UOSSM members have provided more than just motivation; they have also given them a close understanding of the situation, as well as personal contacts. ‘The good thing in the Syrian situation is, being Syrian, we have connections to the Syrian people anywhere in Syria.’ These contacts have served as implementing partners for UOSSM, says Dr Nizar. ‘They work with local people in Syria, and the local people are our main strength in that we are able to communicate with the people on the ground who know exactly what’s happening, what their needs are and so on.’ Thanks to these strong local contacts, UOSSM has been able to provide a referral system for international NGOs seeking to establish a presence inside opposition-held territory.

Many of these contacts were made during Dr Nizar’s previous work with the Syrian British Medical Society (SBMS), a member organisation of UOSSM. Founded in 2007, SBMS sought to improve medical knowledge and understanding in the Syrian medical sector, through conferences and information-sharing activities that brought together British-Syrian medical professionals with their counterparts in Syria. ‘When this conflict started, [the Syrian doctors] called us, saying they needed help.’ SBMS started supplying medicine, sharing medical information and providing support to local doctors seeking to provide medical care to people under fire. Over time, SBMS joined together with similar like-minded medical organisations run by members of the Syrian diaspora in the United States, Canada, France and Saudi Arabia, amongst others, to form UOSSM. ‘We found that by doing this together we could benefit the people of Syria much more’, reflects Dr Nizar. They began to pool information and resources and coordinate programming decisions.

Despite the very personal nature of the driving force behind UOSSM’s work, Dr Nizar stresses the importance of humanitarian principles, striving to maintain the neutrality and impartiality of UOSSM’s work. ‘We have been pressured by some Syrian political groups to be affiliated with them. But we have completely refused to be affiliated with any political party or side. We’ve always maintained our neutrality – especially as doctors, as medical aid personnel.’ Referring to the basic medical principle of providing care to those who need it, regardless of their ethnicity, religion or affiliation, Dr Nizar draws links between core principles of both the humanitarian and medical sectors, noting that increased interaction with established humanitarian agencies has only strengthened his commitment to such principles and code of ethics.

‘Needless to say we are not actually taking part in any side of the conflict. We are completely neutral to what’s going on … We leave the political talks … to the people who are dealing with it. As a humanitarian organisation, we should not concentrate on that; we should just recognise that there are people in need. Wherever they are, whether they are in opposition or government-held areas, we have to help them.’ Dr Nizar recognises that the UOSSM has not been able to gain full access to government-controlled areas due to restrictions imposed by the Assad regime. A few international organisations and governments initially perceived this as a lack of impartiality – a claim Dr Nizar firmly rejects. ‘This is not the case. The minute we get access to everywhere in the country … we would be there the next day.’ UOSSM has worked with patients from both sides of the conflict and has delivered medical aid to government as well as opposition-controlled areas. UOSSM has also been able to collaborate with international and national partners on key projects such as the construction and running of the Bab AlHawa Hospital in northern Syria. This has demonstrated that diaspora groups can not only play a role in humanitarian emergencies, but can also be essential for gaining access and, as Fabrice Weissman of Médecins Sans Frontières argues, scaling up aid in long-running conflicts.+Fabrice Weissman, ‘Scaling Up Aid in Syria: The Role of Diaspora Networks’, http://www.odihpn.org/the-humanitarian-space/blog/scaling-upaid-in-syria-the-role-of-diaspora-networks.

Dr Nizar believes that almost three-quarters of Syria’s hospitals are out of service or only partly functional, and as medical needs grow over the course of the conflict, the health system will be put under increasing strain. ‘It’s not just that we have to build up the system that we had before, we need even more because of these years of conflict and war’, says Dr Nizar. ‘What we’re doing now is just treating the most urgent needs, but once the conflict is over and we have access to everyone in Syria, then we’re going to find much more need for medical aid … we have to set aside funds to rebuild the healthcare system … this is not something that can be managed by charities and local small organisations, it’s going to have to be [led by] governments and large international institutions.’

The challenges of working in conflict are compounded by the specific targeting of aid workers, regardless of their nationality. ‘The government is treating anybody who is carrying out aid work as being unlawful, or an invader, even if you’re Syrian. So unfortunately there have been many cases of doctors being killed, tortured, imprisoned, just because they are just doing their work.’ Violence against aid workers has created an extremely difficult working environment, says Dr Nizar. ‘Aid workers are always worried that they’ll be captured and that is hindering the work. It’s not just the stress of the situation, but stress that there may be bombs, fighting, government check points where they can be questioned and found out to be treating patients.’ According to Dr Nizar, ‘some hospitals have been specifically targeted with shelling’.

Another difficulty has been the key issue of access. While some international organisations have not been able to work in opposition-held territory due to lack of consent, Dr Nizar believes that aid agencies could do more to secure access: ‘We would expect [these organisations] to put more pressure either collectively or working individually on persuading the world and the government of Syria to grant them access. And they have to persist in this … the needs are huge and we need all the help possible’.

Despite the challenges, Dr Nizar remains resolute in his work. ‘I’m a doctor – I help, and that’s me and everyone else in UOSSM. Our aim is just to help our colleagues in Syria and to help the people in Syria with their medical needs. That’s our aim and hopefully once this conflict is over we can go back to our normal life … It’s been quite tough.’

Interview by Tania Cheung, Communications Officer at the Humanitarian Policy Group, Overseas Development Institute.

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