Chicago physician Zaher Sahloul founded an NGO to support people enduring war and natural disasters worldwide. It started in response to war in his homeland. Syria, and continues today in Ukraine.
Since February 2022,
the Russian invasion of Ukraine
has continued with no end in sight.
The people of Ukraine have endured
numerous attacks on their cities.
And shortages of medical staff and supplies
have increased their suffering.
president of the
Chicago-based non-profit, MedGlobal,
has worked on providing medical support
since the beginning of this crisis.
What do you think is the
most important contributions of...
in terms of medical supplies and medications?
A Syrian American,
Sahloul started his work 11 years ago
with the outbreak of the war in Syria.
That experience led him to found MedGlobal,
which has sent volunteers
and medical supplies
to war-torn areas and places
hit by natural disasters
in 18 countries.
We ask Zaher Sahloul to tell us
the key to helping people in crisis.
Medical Support for a World in Crisis
In the areas that are under bombing
in the war in the frontlines,
you have hospitals that are
being attacked or targeted,
which is unfortunately something that
the Russians have done
also in my homeland in Syria.
So, the hospital struggles to deal with this
influx of large number of injured patients.
So, people need to be trained
and hospital need to modify
the way that they operate.
What we have done, in MedGlobal, that
we've done this mass casualty training.
So, we send busy trauma surgeons
from busy trauma centers in the United States
to provide this type of training.
So, that way, doctors,
emergency room nurses, administrator
understand what they need to do
to make sure that they can save
as many lives as possible
within the setting of war
in spite of the limited resources,
in spite of the disruption
of the supply chain.
So, one of the trainings that we have done
is called point-of-care ultrasound,
which is basically using small devices
or ultrasound probes
that are connected to the iPad
or the smart phone.
We coordinated with
the Ministry of Health in Ukraine,
so they always tell us
this is a list of what we need,
and then we try to arrange for that,
procure that in the United States,
and then send that to
our warehouse in Lviv in Ukraine.
And sometimes, we send them to Poland.
And from there in the warehouse,
our team will distribute them
to the different hospitals
that are in need for them
on the frontline or based on their needs.
Sahloul organized a team of
five medical volunteers
to join him on a mission to Ukraine
within a few weeks of the invasion.
They visited field hospitals
and medical facilities,
delivering supplies and equipment.
In just five days,
they were able to set up a
local network of doctors and nurses.
We took with us 167 pieces of luggage.
So, when we arrived in Warsaw airport,
we had this pile of luggage.
So, he had a bus, we had them with us,
and then he took us across the border
to Lviv in Western Ukraine.
We visited several hospitals
and it was very safe at that time,
but I mean you feel the war.
You feel the war because,
you know, at night,
there's complete darkness,
there's no electricity,
there is blackout.
You cannot get in the city or
outside of the city because of the curfew,
and you hear the sirens
several times during the day.
People are fixated on their phones
trying to get the information
and it felt like World War 3 to me.
And this is in Europe.
This is in a European City.
Lviv is a beautiful city.
But outside of that,
we visited hospitals,
we talked with doctors,
and we asked them,
"How can we help?"
They told us that you are the first NGO
that arrived in the city.
So, we were very happy to hear that.
And then, in the way back,
we helped in evacuating one family.
I still remember the name of that child.
His name was Timothy.
He was 12 years old,
and he was fleeing from Kiev,
from a city near Kiev with his family;
And then, the Russians opened fire on the car
and his grandma bled to death in the field.
There were no ambulances to take care of her
and she died.
His cat also died.
He had fractures,
his aunt had fracture,
his grandpa had fractures,
We took them to a local hospitals
in Poland, in Lublin.
And he was completely traumatized,
similar to the children I've seen in Syria.
I mean nothing different, you know.
When you are traumatized,
you are traumatized,
in the faces of children, it shows.
And he told me to tell this story.
So, these things stay with you when you
go to a place that are going to disaster.
And I think these children
keep bringing me back,
the picture and the images of their faces,
whether they are in Syria or Gaza
or in Yemen or in Ukraine to these places.
This is not something that you're trained
in medical school or training
but you are using
different parts of your brain.
I think it's the importance
of pushing the envelope,
the importance of taking risk.
Without taking risk in life,
you're not going to go anywhere.
And the importance of, you know, networking,
getting to know people who you don't know
whether they will help you or not,
and how to trust this person.
You have to talk to the person and
then understand, and look at the eye to them.
It takes me two to three weeks
to get back to my balance
after I come from medical missions
because all of these things
that you have seen, I have seen,
the stories, and things like that,
it adds up and affects
my mental health like anyone else.
Sahloul was born in Syria,
where he graduated from medical school.
In 1989 he left for the US
to pursue his studies further.
At hospitals in Chicago
he built a successful career working
as a critical care and pulmonary physician.
But when Syria descended into
the turmoil of civil war,
he decided to rush back to
his homeland with medical supplies.
He didn't know what to expect.
So, from the time
that you get across the border
using smugglers is something that
I've never been trained to do that no one is,
but it's of course risky business
but you have to do it.
I felt that I had to do it.
Basically, we had the
Turkish guard shooting at us.
We had them putting us
like in the back of the van
and then sending back,
sending us back to Syria
because they thought that we are smugglers
So, how do you help the population now
with that who don't have
and don't have functioning hospitals?
How to establish a field hospital
in a mountain or in a cave?
We had one of the hospitals that
we established was in the middle of cave
because hospitals were bombed
routinely by the Assad regime.
Doctors were killed and targeted.
So, all of these things were difficult.
But, you know, I think retrospectively,
I think that's the most important thing
that I did in my life.
In Syria, after 11 years of war,
you have limited resources
that affects every part of Syria.
And that's why we're seeing
an outbreak of cholera.
It reflects basically this,
it's a symptom of much bigger problem.
Cholera is related to the fact
that you don't have clean water anymore.
You don't have enough electricity
to provide clean water.
You don't have enough chlorine,
that you don't have
enough education for people
to know that
they cannot drink from the river.
But this is the tip of the iceberg.
I think the situation,
medical situation is much more horrible,
but we don't see it in the news.
It's not bombs and missiles
that are killing people.
It's normal diseases.
Sahloul founded MedGlobal in 2017
to help people in crisis across the world
with his medical expertise.
MedGlobal has provided medical services
to about 750,000 people
with the help of more than 500 volunteers.
they delivered more than $6.5 million
worth of medical equipment and supplies.
All these missions and supplies
are funded by donations.
The world, unfortunately,
is full of disasters
and it will get worse
because of climate change,
because of the wars and limited resources
and water shortage and all kinds of stuff,
We select the countries
that we think that we can have an impact,
and that we think that we have an access.
And the way that we do it,
that initially we start with assessment,
and then if the disaster
will last for the long time,
then we hire people from the same country
and we establish sustainable program.
Because the idea is to build resilience
in the local community to weather the storm.
We don't parachute in and parachute out.
This is actually not helpful.
You want to train partner
with local communities, train them,
provide them with medical equipment
and medical supplies
so they can do things themselves.
They can come up with a solution that are
better than the solutions that we come out.
And this is why that's the kind of
our modus operandi with MedGlobal,
partnering with local community,
providing them with innovations,
with technology, with training
that make them more capable
to weather the storm,
whether it's natural disaster
or war situation.
Some days you wake up and
you don't want to leave your bed.
I don't want to leave my bed because there's
too many things you are worried about.
And sometimes, I feel that
I can move mountains.
I'm a different person now than 11 years ago.
But I have to continue
and, you know,
I find ways to take care of myself
and my mental health and keep going.
Sahloul frequently communicates
with MedGlobal's local team in Ukraine,
to keep up with the needs of medical staff.
And then ultrasound.
So you just keep on going
and providing more and more help.
And last week,
we had delivered three ultrasound devices.
For Sahloul, the Ukrainian crisis
is looking more and more like Syria,
and he worries about the possible
deployment of chemical weapons.
I can draw a straight line from
the Syrian crisis to the Ukrainian crisis,
and many people can do that,
can connect the dots
that because we allowed Russia
to do what they have done in Syria,
and they admitted themselves.
There's all kind of things
that can be used unfortunately in the war,
and this next phase of the war
could be more brutal.
So, civilians may be targeted more,
whether it's nuclear or
biological or chemical weapons
may be used by the Russians.
So, we have to be prepared,
and doctors and nurses have to be prepared,
They asked us to do training
in chemical weapons from the first meeting.
Chemical agents in Syria
did not kill large number of people,
maybe 10,000 people maximum,
but it created a lot of scare
and depopulated areas,
and that was the reason
for using it anyway in Syria
to scare people and to depopulate area,
so people will flee and then it will be easy
for the other side to control these areas.
And I'm afraid that this will happen
at one point in Ukraine
They will need the things for the long term.
There's something called war fatigue
and we've seen it in Syria,
where after the first few years of the war,
people did not pay attention
and stopped paying attention
even though that situation now is
much worse than five years ago.
What I'm afraid of,
and I think we started to see that,
that you will have fatigue,
war fatigue in Ukraine and
people will stop paying attention.
That mean you will have
less aid going to Ukraine,
Humanize these people who are
looked at as numbers only,
millions of this and millions of that.
Give them names, give them age,
give details about their life
when you talk about them in the media,
I think that will make a change.
Like-minded people can support
organizations that are doing good work.
So, donations of course, is also always good.
Advocacy now is much easier
using the social media.
After 11 years of working on emergency
medical support around the world,
what words does Zaher Sahloul
keep in mind to further his mission?
Children, refugee, risk, and persistence.
because of the children that I've seen
in my medical missions, I keep going back.
This is the worst refugee crisis
in our lifetime.
25 million refugees,
80 million displaced people.
We have to do something.
Refugee camps are not good place to live.
Unless we take risk, we're not going to do
anything meaningful in life.
So, taking risk is good.
Taking risk in leadership,
taking risk will help many people.
We have a saying in Arabic
the rain drops will create
a dent in the hardest stone.
So, with persistence, we can do a lot,
we can help other people
and we can change minds.
We can change the mindsets of politicians,
who can make major policy changes
that will help many people.
Children, refugee, risk, and persistence.