Dr. Saren Azar surrounded by little patients and mothers at a refugee camp. Photo courtesy of Dr Azer
TORONTO, Canada – Dr. Saren Azer knows first hand the plight of refugees returning to the rubble that buries their homes in the Syrian-Kurdish town of Kobane, where Kurdish forces evicted the Islamic State (ISIS) after months of steadfast resistance.
That is because he also was once a refugee.
Since January 26, when Kurdish forces fighting ISIS declared Kobane liberated from ISIS, refugees have been returning by the thousands. But because of the war, which included near-daily airstrikes by coalition forces on ISIS positions, little is left standing in Kobane.
“The decomposing bodies of humans and animals and lack of medical supplies and staff pose a threat to the health and safety of the returning refugees to Kobane,” said Azer, a Kurdish physician based in British Columbia, Canada.
“The only hospital in Kobane was bombed by ISIS and we are now trying to rebuild a new one,” he explained.
The only hospital in Kobane was bombed by ISIS and we are now trying to rebuild a new one,
The campaign to rebuild the city – which became an international icon of Kurdish resistance for standing up to repeated ISIS assaults since mid-September – began last month.
Dr. Azer has been giving speeches at venues across Ontario and British Columbia to raise funds for rebuilding the autonomous Kurdish region within Syrian borders.
He is involved not only because he is a medical specialist, or that he is a Kurd; it is also because he was once a refugee.
Twenty-five years ago Azer, an Iranian-Kurd, had to spend time in a refugee camp in Iraq during its 1989-88 war with Iran. In 1994, he arrived in Canada and continued his education in Edmonton, receiving his doctorate. He is now a medical specialist, a doctor who has completed advanced education and clinical training in internal medicine and critical care medicine. He is also fluent in Sorani, Kurmanji, English, Farsi, Arabic and Turkish.
In 2007, Azer founded the International Society for Peace and Human Rights (ISPHR) and has been sending medical supplies and staff to the camps in Turkey and northern Iraq ever since.
“ISPHR, in collaboration with Health Partners International Canada (HPIC), has the exclusive chance to purchase Physician Travel Packs for only 10 percent of the price,” Azer explained.
“The retail price is almost $6,000 but for $575 we can send essential medicines and supplies to the camps. Each box can save 60 to 120 lives,” he said.
Azer frequently gathers a team of volunteer health professionals and they carry the shipment of medicines and supplies to a number of refugee camps -- from Kalar to Koyah and Makhmour to Dohuk – running mobile clinics in the overcrowded sites.
The camps in Domiz in the Kurdistan Region, which were built for 8,000-12,000 people, housed 40,000 inhabitants last year.
“Back in 2007, the camps’ situation was much better than now,” Azer said. “I have been told that on certain occasions the camps have had up to 90,000 refugees. Whatever the exact number is, what’s important is that the situation is dire,” he warned.
Overcrowded, underequipped camps in Domiz have created a crisis.
“People don’t have access to clean water. Malnutrition, cholera, meningitis, and other infectious diseases prevail,” Azer said.
This articulate and humanitarian Kurdish doctor, himself a father of four, finds it extremely difficult to see children dying from easily preventable diseases.
“Life is majestic and beautiful. Children are the core of existence. I wonder how many future Einsteins die in those camps around the world, every year,” Azer wondered.
In December, ISPHR raised $20,000, enough to send a shipment of medicines to a camp on the Turkish border. But with so much misery everywhere, what can be done seems never enough.
People don’t have access to clean water. Malnutrition, cholera, meningitis, and other infectious diseases prevail,
“Sometimes it haunts me that nothing we do is enough,” Azer said, recalling a heartbreaking incident during his time in the Kalar refugee camp in 2011.
“An eight-year old, carrying 250 dinars (25 cents Canadian) in her palm came up to me one day and asked me to cure the pain in her chest. I examined her and it turned out that she had severe heart conditions and needed immediate attention, much beyond what our mobile clinic could offer,” he recalled.
“It took a lot of convincing and a lot of time until her father allowed us to take the little girl to a hospital,” Azer continued. “Despite our efforts, we couldn’t raise enough money to get her the heart surgery she needed. Under our care, she passed away. I shall never forget the small hands presenting 250 dinars to me.”
Despite numerous such stories, Azer and his team continue to work hard. A generous donor in Edmonton has been matching the funds raised by ISPHR.
Because everyone working for ISPHR is a volunteer, every cent raised has been spent on medicines and supplies, Azer explained.
“Each suitcase-size box can treat up to 600 children and adults. That means with every 50 cents Canadians can prevent an unnecessary death.”
The United Nations warns that the world is facing the worst refugee crisis in recent human history. Humanitarian groups remain overwhelmed by the devastating war in Syria that has been dragging on for five years. Millions of civilians have lost their homes and livelihood.
The United Nations Food Programme announced this year that it was running out of money to feed a million and a half refugees. That has meant more deaths; it has meant Syrian refugees abandoning their dignity and begging in the streets of Turkey and Jordan.
Azer and his team say that, through them, people have an easy and practical means of helping hungry, cold, and sick children and other refugees in the overcrowded camps. They can also help lend a helping hand to the long-oppressed Kurds who are rebuilding homes demolished by the brutality of ISIS.
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