A Syrian Doctor’s Story: ‘There is not any light at the end of the sky’

In Turkey, journalist Michael Petrou meets Abdolsalam Daif, a doctor who risks travel to Syria and whose anecdotes serve as a painful reminder of what families continue to experience there.

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July 27, 2017
Abdolsalam Daif
Abdolsalam Daif. Credit: Michael Petrou

Doctor Abdolsalam Daif tried to quit Syria once and was stopped by a four-year-old boy.

It was February 2014, almost three years after a popular uprising against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad began, and almost two years after Daif, a surgeon and gynecologist, had fled Aleppo with nothing but the clothes he wore after a friend warned him that regime agents were coming to arrest him because he had treated wounded opposition fighters.

Daif took his family to neighbouring Turkey but still travelled back to Syria to work in hospitals and clinics there. Many had been bombed. Daif lost friends and colleagues. He says hospitals are so frequently targeted by Assad’s air force, or by his Russian allies, that neither civilians nor fighters want them built nearby. The hospitals they do establish are often in basements, which afford some protection from airstrikes.

“We work as rats inside Syria, under the ground,” he says during an interview in Gaziantep, a large city in southeastern Turkey where road signs still point the way to Aleppo.

That February, Daif was offered a contract to work in Saudi Arabia and told his wife he would take it. But he wanted to return to Syria one last time to visit the hospital where he worked and tell his colleagues in person that he was leaving.

A small boy was brought to the hospital when Daif was there. The boy’s face was injured and Daif was called to the Emergency Room to treat him.

“He told me, ‘Please, Amu, please, Uncle, don’t leave me,’” Daif says.

“I closed the wound, and I was thinking about his words: ‘Please, Uncle, don’t leave me. Please, Uncle, help me.’ So after that I decided to stay inside Syria and ignore my contract in Saudi. It was a difficult decision to stay there. But I believe this is my life and I chose this kind of life. I think it is my duty to help these children.”

Daif, who is also the Turkey country director for the NGO Syria Relief and Development, is among some three million Syrian refugees in Turkey. His children study in Turkish schools, and his wife is pursuing higher education here.

But his heart remains in Syria. He continues to work at hospitals in the rebel-controlled north of the country — though he says lately he does so with fear. 

“Syrians in the beginning were just asking for freedom. But the scenario changed in the first of 2013. Many Islamic groups tried to control the revolution for their benefit. Now we don’t know who is opposition group. Most of them have masks. And we don’t know who is this,” he says.

“Every day there is new conflict between new opposition groups. Everyone tries to control the other. And everywhere there is weapons. Even small children have weapons.”

Daif believes the primary source of Syria’s torment is Assad, but he says removing Assad has become more complicated. He likens the dictator to a tumour that has been left untreated. “If you treat the disease from the beginning, I think the patient will be good. But after the disease becomes worse and worse, and complex, it’s very difficult to control. This is what happens inside Syria,” he says.

Despite these complexities, Daif says peace with Assad in power is impossible. “The civilian people will not forget what happened. They will still remember that they lost their families because of al-Assad,” he says.

But Assad’s supporters seem equally unwilling to contemplate a country without him. “I still remember what they wrote on the wall: ‘Al-Assad, or we burn the country,’” Daif says, recalling pro-regime graffiti from the early days of the war.

“This is what happened. They destroyed everything. Now we are inside darkness and there is not any light at the end of the sky.” 

Daif recalls, also, the many Syrian civilians he has treated.

There was the boy who begged him not to leave and who is the reason he still works in Syria. There was the mother who demanded clothes for her dead baby because she was convinced he was alive and simply cold. There was another mother standing beside a collapsed building after an airstrike, crying with a five-year-old girl beside her. Daif tried to comfort her by pointing out that the girl was alive. But she had 10 children and the other nine were dead. And there was a father dug out of rubble unconscious beside his dead wife. He woke up and asked about her, and then asked about their seven children.

“He lost them all,” says Daif.

“From the beginning, I was crying when I was saying these cases. Now I just remember them.”

Michael Petrou is the 2017 R. James Travers Foreign Corresponding Fellow. The fellowship, named in honour of the late journalist and foreign correspondent Jim Travers, funds significant foreign reporting projects by Canadian journalists.