This is the second of two articles by Amir Tibon about Syrian refugees. Read the first here.
The patient sat on a gray plastic chair and tried to warm himself by placing a heating bag on his stomach. He said he is 66 years old and that he comes from a ruined neighborhood of Damascus, the capital of Syria. His street was leveled by the Air Force of his own country. The bombs that fell on people’s houses, he said, were paid for with their tax money. “All these years we gave them our money, and we complained that no one knows what the government was doing with it. Now we finally found out,” he said with a wide grin. Hearing it the way he told it, I had no choice but to laugh.
The conversation took place at a small clinic—basically, a caravan 16 square meters large—in a transit camp for Syrian refugees escaping to Europe. The camp is located on the border between Serbia and Macedonia and is one of many stops on the refugees’ long journey to Western Europe. Two weeks ago, I published here at Tablet an article based on conversations with dozens of Syrian refugees I met at this camp, who described the horrors currently taking place in Syria. But the refugees weren’t the only people I met during my five-day visit to the place. I also got to spend time with the people who I’ve come to call “the painkillers”—doctors, nurses, social workers, aid workers, and others who come to places like this transit camp in order to offer help to those who’ve been betrayed by the entire world.
What they can offer doesn’t seem like much. As one aid worker told me, “What we’re doing is like giving Advil to a person with cancer.” In fact, some of the “painkillers” I met have come to the sad conclusion that what they’re doing is, at the end of the day, adding to the hideous total of suffering in Syria: Western governments are providing political and diplomatic cover to the Syrian regime and its allies, while at the same time they piously offer aspirin and tents to the refugees fleeing the carnage that they are sponsoring. It’s a cruel business, but when a nurse in the transit camp is standing in front of a mother who is asking for help because her baby is sick, the debate over “what are we really doing here?” seems secondary.
The man with the dark sense of humor, who laughed about his taxes, came to the clinic complaining about strong headaches, a bad cough, and outbursts of dizziness. The doctor who examined him said he had a fever and that the best thing for him would be to lie down for two days and get some rest. The transit camp includes a number of large, heated tents where refugees can stay for a night or two, but very few of them choose to do so: They want to keep going, toward Germany, always afraid that the borders will shut down because of political pressures. This is also what this man’s family wanted to do. The doctor, realizing there was no way to change his mind, said he would give him some pills for pain relief, and something for his cough.
While waiting for his medicine, the 66-year-old patient talked with a social worker present at the clinic. The conversation was in Arabic. They discussed his plans for a new life in Germany and how his grandchildren were coping with the difficult journey. At some point, he asked the social worker, a green-eyed woman in her early 30s, where she’s from. “You have a Jordanian accent,” he noted.
“I’m Arab ’48,” she replied, using a popular term in the Arab world for describing the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel—those who were left within the Hebrew state’s territory after the war of 1948. There was a moment of quiet, during which the old Syrian man realized the meaning of what he just heard: not only that the social worker, to whom he had opened his heart, was a citizen of an enemy country, but also that the doctor who treated him was an Israeli Jew. (“I suddenly understood what language the social worker and the doctor were speaking between themselves,” he later told me. “It sounded a bit like Arabic, but also very different.”) Then he told a story, which caught the social worker, as well as me, by complete surprise.
“My family is originally from Tuba,” he said, referring to a small Bedouin village in northern Israel, near the Sea of Galilee. “I was born in Syria, but as a child, I grew up hearing stories about our village, and the lands around it.” During Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, the population of Tuba was split into two “camps”: Most of the residents decided to fight alongside the newborn state of Israel against its Arab enemies; but this man’s family, along with many others in the village, refused to do so and instead left to neighboring Syria. Now, 67 years later, he was here, at the clinic in a small town in southern Serbia, receiving treatment from Israelis.
“For many years, I thought that those who left the village did the right thing,” the man said. “The Arabs did suffer very badly in Israel. But today I think it was a mistake. After what has happened to us in Syria, I have no doubt. Those who stayed in Tuba made a smart decision.”
During my visit to the transit camp, I met doctors, nurses, and aid workers from many different countries, who were part of the “painkillers” industry. Among them were Germans, Brits, French, Danes, Spaniards, Swiss, Dutch, and also local Serbs. The most interesting group for me to follow, however, was the Israelis: three doctors, a nurse, and two social workers, who flew to the transit camp for a three-week period, doing so on a completely voluntary basis. They took time off from their work places, left their families back in Israel, and came to a place literally “in the middle of nowhere” to help and assist people who are citizens of a country with which Israel is still technically at war.
The doctors I met were Yael from Tel Aviv, Eitan from Be’er Sheva, and Meni from Jerusalem—all in their early 30s. They were assisted by Lotte, a nurse working for Soroka hospital in southern Israel, and by two social workers: Ahlam from the village of Deir Hana in the Galilee, and Badaria from Jaffa. All of them arrived to the transit camp on behalf of an Israeli humanitarian aid organization called “Natan,” in memory of the late Israeli peace activist Abie Nathan.
‘The painkillers’: doctors, nurses, social workers, aid workers, and others who come to places like this transit camp to offer help to those who’ve been betrayed by the entire world.
As the names imply, this was a group of Arab and Jewish Israelis working together. Not as a political statement, but simply because it makes the medical treatment and emotional support they offer the refugees more efficient. “Natan” has been running the clinic at the transit camp since last fall. So far, it has sent 34 doctors, nurses and social workers from Israel to help the Syrian refugees. Roughly half of these staff members were Israeli-Arabs. Most clinics have an entirely non-Arabic speaking staff, with a single translator to make up for the language difficulties. Since the vast majority of the refugees speak only Arabic, the presence of Arabic-speaking professional staff at the Israeli clinic makes a huge difference.
Eitan Damari, the doctor from Be’er Sheva, told me, “Before I came here, I had an argument with some friends over this trip. They said the Syrians would never do something like this for us if it was the other way around, so why should doctors from Israel come out here and help them. Some also used racist arguments about Arabs. I told them, ‘Look, you can be racist in politics, everyone is a bit like that these days, but when it comes to medical treatment, the rules are different. When you see a person that needs help, you don’t ask them where they’re from or what’s their religion. You just help them. That’s what you have to do.’ ”
I watched Eitan and the other “Natan” volunteers working for five days and nights at the small clinic. They treated hundreds of people, while I sat in the corner and took notes, helping from time to time with Arabic translation when there were too many patients for Ahlam and Badaria, the social workers, to keep track of everyone. I counted at least 30 babies who arrived at the clinic, as well as more than 10 pregnant women. There were also seven people on wheelchairs, at least three with diabetes, one blind person, and two who lost legs.
“The hardest part for me is seeing the children,” said Meni Amran, the doctor from Jerusalem. His wife recently gave birth to their first child. “When parents come here with a sick child, especially a baby, I always have to make professional compromises that I don’t like doing. What I’d like to tell them is—‘Stay here for a few nights. Let the child sleep comfortably, drink hot tea, and take a warm bath.’ But I can’t tell them to do this, first of all because they’re in a hurry to reach their destination, and also because the conditions here aren’t really that good. So, give them something to ease the pain, to make it easier for a while. It’s far from perfect, but it’s the best I can do.”
On my third day at the transit camp, someone brought a batch of balloons to the clinic. Every child who received treatment walked out with a balloon at hand. “If it makes them smile, after what they’ve just been through for the last weeks, then we have achieved something,” said Lotte Bengal, the nurse. Born in Belgium, she immigrated to Israel more than two decades ago and has been living in the Negev area ever since. “For a child, this journey is hard emotionally just as it is physically, so making them feel good for the short time they are here, is very important” she added.
Most refugees spend between 20 to 30 days on the road, riding trains, buses, and vans all the way from the Istanbul to Berlin. I asked a number of parents for permission to interview their young children. One theme that recurred in the interviews was how scary it was to cross from Turkey to Greece by boat.
“It was dark and very cold, and we almost fell to the water because of the wind,” said Mohammad, a 9-year-old boy escaping with his family from Homs, Syria’s third-largest city. “I was afraid we are all going to die in the water. I don’t know how to swim.” In recent months, hundreds of refugees drowned while trying to make this passage.
The rest of the trip wasn’t much fun, either: “The police in Macedonia yelled at us all the time, but we couldn’t understand what they were saying. It’s bad when someone is yelling at you and you don’t know what they want.” So, it’s good to have Arabic-speaking social workers at the clinic. It’s also smart to have balloons at hand.
Ahlam Ali, the social worker who spoke with the man from Tuba, arrived at the transit camp on the same day I did. In Israel she manages a number of nursing homes for people with mental disorders. As we drove to Presevo, the small border town hosting the camp, I asked her why she decided come here for three weeks of hard work, which she won’t get paid for. “First of all, because it’s important to help these people—I can’t see what is happening to them and not do something, even something small, to help them,” she answered. “Besides that, I think it will be a very interesting experience for me professionally. Trying to provide assistance under these circumstances, after what these refugees have gone through—it’s the kind of challenge that makes you better and stronger, I hope.”
The meaning of Ahlam’s name in Arabic is “dreams.” She was one of the friendliest people I met at the camp, but we soon found out there was an inevitable collision between our lines of work. Her role at the clinic was to make people feel calm, safe, and comfortable. She was there to help the refugees focus on their immediate needs, like getting new diapers for the baby or resolving problems in their paperwork. The one thing she wanted them not to think about was what they’ve left behind: the friends and relatives who died in the war, the house or neighborhood that were destroyed, the violence still raging.
The problem, of course, was that my main reason for being there was to get the refugees to talk about what’s happening in Syria right now, tell their stories, and do so in an emotional and detailed way. “I don’t think it’s good for them, to talk about this,” she told me after seeing one woman almost cry while sharing her memories with me. “I think it’s still too painful for them.”
My line of defense was that if these stories aren’t told and heard, it will only get worse. As I’ve written in my previous article, this is a very weak argument to make, after five years of constant media coverage—and constant slaughter—in Syria. But Ahlam came to accept it, eventually. “I just can’t understand why nobody is doing anything to put an end to this,” she told me one evening, after seeing more sad children in the clinic. “Everyone is talking about it, but it’s only words. It’s meaningless.” That’s basically what I’m going to write, I told her. And so we reached a quiet agreement.
The refugees arriving at the “Natan” clinic have no idea they are being treated by Israelis. There is no Israeli flag or any other symbols related to Israel at the clinic. The only written presence of Hebrew in the clinic are two A4-sized pages glued to one of the walls, which include a short “Hebrew-Farsi Medical Dictionary,” useful for helping refugees that arrive from Afghanistan and speak no Arabic. But the medical staff isn’t making any effort to hide its Israeliness, either. They speak between themselves only in Hebrew. If a refugee asks, “Where are you from?” they will usually get a straight answer. Badaria Halili, the social worker from Jaffa, was asked by a number of patients if she’s Palestinian, because of her accent. “Yes,” she replied, “I live in Jaffa.”
One patient, who said his name was Nabeel, told me he recognized immediately that the doctor treating him was Israeli. “I was an officer in the Syrian army, in the Golan area,” he explained. “I can identify Hebrew. It’s the language of the enemy.” The last sentence he said with a little smile. Do you still think we’re enemies? I asked him.
“I change my mind on this question all the time,” he replied. “Our biggest enemy is Iran, not Israel. But who does Israel support in Syria? Some people think you support the Syrian people. Others say you prefer Assad to stay in power. If you support Assad, you are my enemy. If not, we can be like brothers.”
I informed him that unfortunately, I don’t have the answer to his question. Israel’s policy, I explained briefly, is basically not to get involved in the Syrian mess. “That’s a big mistake,” he said. “Do you want Iran and Hezbollah to control Syria? Because that’s what is going to happen. Why doesn’t Israel help us?”
Well, I noted, some Israelis do help—you just met them. “They are very good people,” he replied. “I never believed what we were taught at the military, that Israelis are like cruel animals. But I’m telling you, Israel will be sorry if Iran and Assad win.” We parted with a friendly handshake. I could have told him about Israel’s fear that Assad’s fall could somehow lead to even greater chaos. But I didn’t. Not just because he had to run to the bus, but also because I remembered what Ahlam told me a day earlier: It’s hard enough for these people; there is no need to make them feel even more depressed.
Einav Levy, the field coordinator for “Natan,” was the funniest person I hung around with during my visit. Levy, 35, from Tel Aviv, is responsible for everything the volunteers need from medical equipment to sleeping arrangements to having a good time between shifts. He also has to deal with the local authorities, the management of the camp and the other humanitarian and aid groups working there. He’s the kind of person who gets things done without too many questions.
“This is one of most comfortable places I’ve worked in,” he told me, to my surprise. “I’m sleeping in a heated apartment with electricity, there are grocery stores and restaurants here, I have a car, and there are many gas stations to choose from. In the world of humanitarian aid, those things are far from a given.” Einav has worked previously in places like Haiti and sub-Saharan Africa. He is what Israelis like to call Hayisraeli Hayafe (“the pretty Israeli”)—he served as an officer in the IDF paratroopers’ brigade, volunteers for different social causes at home, and shows the good sides of Israel to others around the world.
But behind his “let’s get it done” persona and good sense of humor, Einav is facing a tough moral dilemma. “I’m not sure if what we’re doing here isn’t just part of prolonging the war,” he said in one of our conversations. “I’m not talking just about our group specifically, but about the entire industry of humanitarian aid that’s working on this issue. You have a war that’s going on for five years now. You have millions of refugees and millions more who will probably arrive. The world is ignoring the roots of the problem. And our role is to keep it under control; to keep the crisis tolerable.” Not for the Syrians, of course, but for everyone else.
The social worker wanted the refugees not to think about what they’ve left behind: the friends and relatives who died in the war, the house or neighborhood that were destroyed, the violence still raging.
On my last night at the camp, I was sitting in the clinic when suddenly a volunteer for a local aid group burst in and yelled—“A woman is about to have a baby! Come quick!” Einav, together with Lotte Bengal the nurse, came out running, following the aid worker into the long line of refugees at the entrance to the camp. Hundreds of people were standing there, cramped and without any space for movement. It was impossible to see where the pregnant woman was. Einav broke into the crowd, trying to make room while looking for her. After passing six lines of people, he finally got her and rushed her to the clinic.
The woman was eight months pregnant, and started feeling strong pains, which made her think that her baby was about to come out. The doctors put her on one of two beds in the clinic, while Badaria tried to calm her down.
A few minutes later, her husband and 4-year-old son arrived at the clinic. “Your wife will be fine,” he was told by Dr. Amran. But the clinic was overcrowded with other patients, so he and the child waited outside. I asked him if he minded talking to me while they were standing there. “There is nothing better I can do,” he replied. He said his name was Ahmad. We spoke in English most of the time, which he said was good because he needed to practice and improve his control of the language.
“I’m Sunni. My wife is Shi’a. We love each other,” he told me. “Many people don’t like it that we’re together. But we are happy. We don’t care what other people think.” They lived in Jordan for the last couple of years, as refugees, but decided to move to Europe because “the wars in Syria and Iraq are going to spread to the entire Middle East. We can’t stay there. It’s not a place for people like us.”
He pointed at his young son, who was watching videos of my dog on my Smartphone while trying to imitate the barks. “I want my boy to grow up in a country where anyone can marry anyone else. Sunni, Shi’a, Christian, Jewish, not an issue.” His son handed me the phone, since the video he watched had ended. I put up a new one. Ahmad kept talking. “It gives me hope to meet people like the doctors in this clinic,” he said. “I’m happy to see there are such good people in the world. I almost forgot there are people like that.”
The conversation with Ahmad convinced me that Einav was wrong, even though he was right. While it’s true that for Western governments, “the painkillers” are mostly a vehicle for not doing anything, that’s not how the Syrian refugees experience the care that they receive. For the refugees I met at the transit camp, people like Ahlam, Badaria, Eitan, Yael, Meni, Einav, and Lotte are everything. It would have been much better, of course, if Western governments had been able or willing to see Assad’s regime for the murderous monstrosity that it is before millions of Syrians were gassed, shelled, and bombed out of their homes. But sometimes, the only medicine available is Advil.
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Amir Tibon is the diplomatic correspondent for Israeli news website Walla.