There are dozens of towns like Şanlıurfa along Turkey’s border with Syria—sprawling swathes of apartment blocks wrapped around picturesque old city centers. Visitors to Şanlıurfa enjoy its famous cuisine and verdant parks, but they will probably be unaware that the city is hosting around 100,000 people who have fled the Syrian conflict. Like hundreds of thousands of refugees in other towns and cities along the border, most of Şanlıurfa’s Syrians are hidden away in rented apartments in the cheap parts of town.
The scale of Turkey’s humanitarian assistance for wounded and displaced Syrians is staggering. The International Crisis Group recently reported that the Turkish government has spent 3 billion US dollars providing medical care and shelter to Syrians who have sought refuge here. Every day, Turkish ambulances scream across the border, bringing the most severely injured people to hospitals in the frontier towns for specialist life-saving treatment.
In Şanlıurfa’s main hospital entire wards are devoted to treating the war’s wounded. “Around 50 percent of the injuries in Syria are caused by shrapnel,” says Mothana Al-Essa, a doctor from the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor who works with wounded Syrians in Turkey. “And bombs don't know if you are a fighter or a civilian.” Many of the people who are brought to Turkey’s hospitals are civilians who were injured as they were sitting in their homes, shopping in the market or playing in their schoolyard. This is the reality of Syria: the frontlines are residential streets and the ordinary people who live on them are being used as pawns in a war of brutal attrition.
The injuries inflicted on them are often life-changing. Shrapnel can slice through a limb like a hot knife. In his small workshop near the hospital, a prosthetics specialist called Ibrahim says his business has multiplied over the past three years. He used to make false limbs for elderly people who suffered from acute diabetes. Now most of the people who come to him are young and healthy but had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The Turkish government gives grants of 1,000 Turkish lira to people who have lost limbs in the conflict, about a fifth of what a basic false limb costs. For the amputees who can find a way to raise the money, having a false limb fitted is a Lazarus-like experience—in one of Ibrahim’s videos, a young man walks with a barely detectable limp, apparently just minutes after his false leg had been fitted.
But for those who can’t raise the funds, the options are limited. While the costs of hospital treatment are covered by the Turkish government, the costs of rehabilitation are not. Wounded Syrians who need ongoing care—and given the severity of their injuries, most do—are forced to navigate through a confusing tapestry of privately funded projects.
When he is not at the hospital, Mothana is at the Bunian Center, a rehabilitation clinic funded by a private donor in Kuwait. There are nine Syrians currently staying at the center—a mixture of fighters and civilians—all of them with injuries so serious that they have required months of intensive medical care. One young man at the center lost all his teeth when a rocket blasted through the wall of his home. He is currently looking for a donor to pay for the dental treatment he needs to eat normally again. Looking after these men, both physically and psychologically, is a full-time job in itself.
But Mothana says he also has to deal with the technicalities of securing funding to keep the project going. In a sector that is completely unregulated, it is easy for conmen to use Syria’s crisis as a way of making quick money: At the beginning of this year a donor who had raised 15,000 dollars for the center apparently went back on his word and kept it for himself. For Mothana and the directors of the Bunian Center, there was no means of legal recourse.
Before the revolution, Syria’s healthcare system was modern and efficient. Three years of war and countless attacks on hospitals, which often appear to be targeted, have reduced medical facilities in most of the rebel-held areas of the country to clinics that can provide only the most basic of first aid. Without Turkey’s medical assistance, thousands more Syrians would doubtlessly have died. But a generation has been left with injuries that will last a lifetime and require ongoing treatment, and as Syria descends further into chaos and the humanitarian burden grows, the uncertain support of private donors seems to be all that they have to fall back on.
All views expressed in this blog post are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, The Majalla magazine.