The Last Safe Place
A small clinic in an eastern Turkish city provides Syrians injured in the war with much-needed help. But the facility is quickly running out of cash -- and the doctors who operate it blame the war on the Islamic State for their troubles.
URFA, Turkey — The doctors took Ayman al-Jaber’s right leg in the Syrian city of Raqqa. His left leg, though, was in even worse shape, and because the beleaguered hospital didn’t have the tools to amputate this one safely, Jaber had to make the trek over 100 miles north to this Turkish city, for the sole purpose of losing his other leg.
Despite his injuries, Jaber is still a broad-shouldered, powerful-looking man with salt-and-pepper hair. Before the 2011 uprising he was a mechanic in the northeastern city of Deir Ezzor. In early July, a regime warplane targeted his neighborhood of Sheikh Yassin in a bombing run — the blast brought down three of the walls of his house, which collapsed on his legs. Even after his legs had been amputated, his troubles were far from over: He found himself in a strange city, without much money or any friends, and having to go through a long ordeal of physical therapy before being fitted with prosthetic legs.
"When I came, I didn’t know anything about Turkey," he says, propped up on his bed in a recovery center in Urfa, his cigarettes and a bottle of orange juice within close reach. "I didn’t know anything about what life is like here — this is the first time for me."
While Jaber was hospitalized in Turkey, a doctor mentioned a center on the edge of town. The facility — run by the Bunian Society, a Syrian NGO — turned out to be a perfect fit: After he left the hospital, it provided him with a place to sleep, food, and medical care while he recuperates. It has eight full-time staff members and receives the bulk of its funding from Gulf donors in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as previous funding from the Turkish government and the Syrian opposition has dried up. Its staff has also received training on how to help patients suffering from the psychological trauma of war.
The Bunian center used to care for about 20 people per day. In the past month, however, that figure has leaped to around 35 per day, stretching the small facility’s resources to the limits. The reason for the increase is a drastic shortage in funding for medical aid organizations throughout Urfa: Two other recovery centers have closed due to funding shortages, leaving Bunian as the only clinic in the city available to injured Syrians.
The Bunian center is also struggling to drum up the money to keep its doors open. And its administrators believe the international effort to crack down on the Islamic State is the reason funding has dried up. With the increased scrutiny on the jihadi group and its sources of funding, donors are afraid of being caught up in the crackdown. As a result, they’re funneling money to large organizations that are known not to be friendly to the Islamic State, rather than smaller facilities like the recovery center.
"We are dealing with just war injuries. Whether they were civilians or Free Syrian Army — here, they are just patients," says Muthanna Eissa, the chief doctor at the center. "But all the organizations outside Turkey said, ‘Maybe they are from ISIS; maybe they are from Jabhat al-Nusra. So we can’t give them funding.’"
Eissa is a Christian who worked in a government-run hospital in Syria before the uprising — then moved to an area under the control of the Free Syrian Army in 2012. The truth, he says, is that most of the patients are civilians — not fighters. The center will, however, treat any injured Syrian who arrives at its door, regardless of the person’s political or military affiliation. It only excludes non-Syrian fighters in the conflict.
It costs $10,000 to $15,000 to keep the center running each month, Eissa says. The Turkish government founded the center and used to pay for its upkeep, and the Syrian opposition government provided it with money once, but those resources have long since dried up. For months now, Eissa and his team have been dependent on aid from private donors in the Gulf.
As the last clinic of its kind in Urfa, the doctor feels a unique pressure to keep the center open as long as possible. If it closes, he says, injured Syrians like Jaber could be forced to sleep in the streets. But with donors in the Gulf now cutting back their contributions, the future is in doubt. "With money, we can do everything," he says. "Without money, we can do nothing."
Smoking a cigarette in his room, Jaber does not seem aware of the center’s tenuous financial state. By all outward appearances, he is in a remarkably good mood for someone who recently lost both of his legs. He sees the Syrian revolt not as a three and a half year confrontation, but as an extension of a conflict that stretches back to the 1982 uprising against former President Hafez al-Assad. Two of his uncles were members of the Muslim Brotherhood back then, and his family has paid for it ever since: Until the revolt, they could not be employed by the government or receive passports, and intelligence officers would frequently interrogate them at their house about their lives or the location of one of the uncles, who fled to Jordan.
"You can’t understand," he says. "I remember growing up, my family would always tell me, ‘Don’t say anything; be careful.’"
The situation in Deir Ezzor, Jaber says, has gotten even worse in recent days. Now people are not only afraid of the Assad regime, but also attacks by the Islamic State and the U.S.-led air campaign.
So, after a lifetime of struggles in Syria, does he want to try to build a new life in Turkey?
Jaber brushes aside the suggestion. "If my [prosthetic] legs come, I’d return to Syria today."