Syria Sans Frontières


Former student of the University of Copenhagen, Haifaa Awad, became a hot topic in Denmark this fall. She wrote a series of articles for the Danish newspaper Information, about her experiences working as a volunteer doctor in war-torn Syria.

“It is surreal to be sitting here at Paludan”. The interview has been going for a while when Haifaa Awad lets her eyes wander around the book café in downtown Copenhagen. It is filled with students, Macbooks, coffees and café sandwiches. By the look of it, it is business as usual.

On this autumnal afternoon it’s been just six weeks since the 27 year old, newly graduated doctor returned from her stay as a volunteer doctor in war-torn Syria. There she experienced first hand the humanitarian catastrophe – more than 100,000 Syrian have been killed and 4,2 million are on the run – which the almost 3-year crisis has brought upon the country.

From the 27th of July to the 26th of August Haifaa Awad’s existence took place in a hospital in Northern Syria, here the order of the day was dictated by the discrepancy between the number of war victims and the amount of medical supplies and trained staff. Aifaa Awad has since described these experiences in a highly acclaimed series of articles for Danish newspaper Information. The articles have now been turned into a book called “A doctor’s diary from Syria”.

On the 13th of August among other things she wrote:

“A four year old girl is carried in. She is white as chalk. Her left arm has been separated at the shoulder. Separated from her body. I wonder if her picture would be printed in Danish newspapers? If it is too macabre for our delicate eyes. That is how it is everyday here.”

“You survive from day to day”

As much as her time at the Syrian hospital was an experience of shock, it was also an experience of release. Haifaa Awad was born in Syria, and even though she has been living in Denmark since 1993, she and her family feel a deep connection to the country.

“I went down there to attempt to make a difference. I’m Syrian myself, and I have friends and family who have been injured, tortured and killed by the regime”, Haifaa Awad says.

“Since the revolution broke out in 2011, I had been feeling that I was on hold. All I wanted to do was to finish my degree as a doctor, so I could get down there and help”

She got her degree in July 2013 and about a month later she crossed the Turkish-Syrian boarder.

Did you ever doubt that you, as a completely inexperienced doctor, were ready for such a violent situation?

No, because what is the alternative? The Assad regime has been systematically targeting the Syrian doctors. In the area where I was, (Northern Idlib) and in the entire Aleppo region, there were 17,000 doctors before the riot began. Now there are no more than a couple of dozen, and there is a lack of nurses as well. When I was down there I helped train eight girls, whom we literally dragged in from the street. I was qualified just for being able to stop a bleeding.

You had a connection with two boys in the beginning of your time in Syria. Later on you describe how you find out that they were killed during a bombardment. How do you cope with something like that?

Her answer is more hesitant than the earlier responses.

“You let go and accept that “Shit happens””, Haifaa Awad says.

“It’s bad. But in situations like the one in Syria, people will lose lives. The only thing you can do is to try and save the ones in front of you. That’s how you survive from day to day. Even down there I had an everyday that needed to run its course.

Leaving Syria

The biggest difference between Haifaa Awad and her colleagues at the hospital was, that her everyday in the Syrian tragedy had an expiration date. She was employed from December 1st 2013 at the hospital in Thorshavn on the Pharaoh Islands.

“Returning home made me feel like a traitor”, she tells.

“Actually I kept postponing my return, and eventually the leading doctor pulled me aside and said it to me straight: “It is fantastic that you came here, but now you need to go back and continue becoming a doctor”.

Haifaa Awad has held on to that logic, she says, when she’s asked if she ever feels that she should have done more.

“You can’t lose yourself. I’m a doctor in Denmark and I need to specialize. I need to hold on to that. When I’ve specialized, I’ll be able to do more good in Syria”.

An unresolved Syria

Also the decision to have her diary published was taken to support the victims of the catastrophe she experienced.

“It has been lurking in the back of my mind that the Syrian voice needed a microphone. So it was a project that aimed at raising awareness among Danes about the situation in Syria. That’s also why it is amazing that the articles have been read by so many people.”

However the diary also has a different and more private significance.

“The diary was also written for my own sake, so I don’t forget what I’ve experienced. Some part of me is afraid that I’ll suppress it somehow.”

Because even though on the first glance Haifaa Awad resembles what she is – a hip young doctor in a café in Copenhagen – the experiences from the Syrian hospital are still unresolved in her.

“I think many people think that you are filled with emotions after an experience like that. But I wasn’t, I was empty. Completely exhausted. It’s not until you get back home, that you start processing what you saw.

At the same time, there is an everyday life to attend to in Thorshavn, and for Haifaa Awad that both entails the role of a doctor and a Syrian activist far away from Syria.

This is an excerpt from an original article by Nicklas Freisleben Lund for Uniavisen
Edited and Translated by Anja Christofferson

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