One of Syria’s most dedicated humanitarians leaves, and tells us why 

For Syria Direct, 26-year-old Mohammad Darwish has long been our window into his Outer Damascus hometown of Madaya.

Darwish was the first to tell us that people were starving to death in Madaya in December 2015, five months after Syrian regime and allied forces encircled the mountain resort town.

A dental student at the time, he was one of just three Madaya residents with any sort of medical training.

Darwish also informed Syria Direct of the patients who began coming to him for help as the siege tightened: men and women with deadly gunshot wounds from pro-regime snipers surrounding the town and more than 20 cases of kidney failure due to a lack of food supplies. Last July, Darwish described dozens of miscarriages since the start of the siege, “an impact of months of malnutrition.”

 Mohammad Darwish, in an undated photo. Photo courtesy of Mohammad Darwish.

But with a dentist’s training and precious few medical supplies, there was often little Darwish could do but watch his patients die.

“This eats at me constantly,” he told Syria Direct in February. “My conscience is wracked with guilt.”

As of earlier this month, the siege is over. Madaya surrendered. Darwish and an estimated 3,000 Madayans left for Idlib under an evacuation deal that finally brought an end to the two-year total blockade. He left rather than stay and live under regime control, he tells Syria Direct’s Bahira al-Zarier from Turkey, in the hopes of finally completing his medical studies.

Q: Why did you choose to leave Idlib province so soon and move on to Turkey? Do you think you will return to Idlib?

The first reason [that I left Idlib] is to attend the [awards] ceremony in Armenia in May, because I am a candidate for the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity. I was nominated by the Syrian American Medical Society as just one among 558 other candidates. Now I’m one of the five finalists.

[Ed.: According to its website, the Aurora Prize is awarded “on behalf of survivors of the Armenian Genocide” to “empower modern-day saviors to offer life and hope to those in urgent need of basic humanitarian aid.” The award includes a $100,000 grant. Winners are set to be announced on May 28 in Yerevan, Armenia.]

The other reason is that I want to try to complete my medical studies—but not in the field of dentistry. If I can obtain a grant either in Turkey or elsewhere abroad, I can work on correcting the mistakes that I made inside Madaya, which I made while practicing a field of medicine that was not my specialty.

Q: As someone who not only lived life under siege, but now lives as a refugee in Turkey, what are your feelings right now when you reflect on your home country? You told us two months ago that you preferred to evacuate Madaya, if that meant that the “suffering ends.” Now that you’ve finally left, do you still feel the same?

Syria is destroyed, both as a people and a country. Despite all of the intervention that has occurred, there are no results on the ground—rather, the situation has only grown worse for me as a besieged person, an evacuee and as a refugee.

As someone living under siege, I reached the point where I was prepared for any decision that would end our suffering, whether that meant evacuation or displacement. All I cared about was ending the siege.

As an evacuee, when I arrived in Idlib I heard news from Madaya and felt grief. The town where I was born, where I grew up—it came flooding back to me in my memories. I will never forget it.

 Mohammad Darwish on the way to Idlib from Madaya on April 14. Photo courtesy of Houssam Mahmmoud.

And as a refugee, I don’t feel homesick yet, because I only just recently arrived in Turkey. That being said, there is a vast difference between Turkey and my own destroyed country. I long for my home in every sense of the word, but at the same time, there are many former Madayans who have welcomed me into their houses here. But if I end up spending a long time here as a refugee, I imagine I will begin to feel homesick.

I live with the hope of returning to Madaya in the near future, the hope that I will not be a refugee for long.

Q: Did you ever consider staying in Idlib to provide medical care to residents there?

After leaving Madaya, I have chosen not to work in medicine again until I get a medical degree. There are doctors and specialists in Idlib with experience. If the pressure on them increases, then they have an alternative option—the border hospitals, and transporting the wounded to Turkey.

Returning to Idlib depends on whether I am able to complete my studies or not, and if I get a scholarship. If not, then I will return to Idlib.

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.