On a recent assignment with Doctors Without Borders, Reza Eshaghian said he felt like ‘most of what I did was witness suffering.’

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Reza Eshaghian has worked in harsh places in the past, including refugee camps. But the Vancouver doctor was shocked by the suffering he saw in northern Syria, where several Canadians, including 24 children, have been detained.

Eshaghian, who works as a family and emergency room doctor in B.C., recently returned from a four-month assignment with Doctors Without Borders, where he worked as the humanitarian group’s medical team leader in al-Hol, a refugee camp near the Syria-Iraq border that holds tens of thousands of women and children displaced after the defeat of the Islamic State.

“It felt quite different from other camps where I’ve worked,” Eshaghian told Postmedia recently. “There are kids everywhere. The greatest suffering we saw was among kids.”

In 2019, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces defeated the last stronghold of the Islamic State in northern Syria. Thousands of people who lived among the terrorist group, including family members of the fighters, were detained in al-Hol and another nearby refugee camp. Two years later, there are about 65,000 people in the camp, including 11,000 foreign citizens from about 60 different countries. More than two-thirds of them are children.

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Doctors Without Borders provides water, sanitation and medical services in al-Hol and runs a clinic just outside an area called the annex, where third-country nationals who are not Syrian or Iraqi are held, said Eshaghian. Annex residents have limited access to health care, between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. each day.

Al-Hol camp, northern Syria on Sept. 3, 2020. More than 65,000 people are being detained at the camp, including 24 Canadian children.
Al-Hol camp, northern Syria on Sept. 3, 2020. More than 65,000 people are being detained at the camp, including 24 Canadian children. Photo by Ricardo Garcia Vilanova /Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders

One morning, Eshaghian was asked to help a patient who had been admitted to the clinic from the annex.

“I entered the room and saw a three-year-old boy with blistering second-degree burns on his face, arms, chest and abdomen,” he recalled. “He was laying still. (He) didn’t make a sound, but his eyes welled.”

The boy’s mother explained that while she was out getting food the previous evening, the boy had knocked over their tent’s heater. The dwelling burst into flames. Without access to medical care, the boy endured severe pain through the night before he was able to get to the clinic.

Eshaghian and his team administered fluids and pain medication, but struggled to get the boy the higher level of care he needed.

“Referrals to Hassakeh (a hospital in a nearby city) are run by another non-governmental organization and are only permitted if they are critical emergencies,” he explained. In such emergencies, the patient must have a military guard in the vehicle with them and another family member willing to stay in a detention room in the camp as a guarantor.

The little boy was eventually transferred to the hospital. Word that he had died came back to camp several days later.

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“His mother never got to see him again,” said the doctor. “He was buried two weeks later in a town he had never been to (before), with people present that he had never known.”

Eshaghian said not being able to do more was the hardest part of the project for him.

“I went through my own psychological distress,” he said. “It felt like most of what I did was witness suffering. … Being able to speak about it is a way of coping.”

Eshaghian said he was not afraid for himself, but it was clear al-Hol is a dangerous place for residents. In 2019, 517 people died in the camp, including 371 children, according to the Kurdish Red Crescent. The doctor spent much of his time practising pediatric medicine, including treating very young children for malnutrition. Accidents, like tent fires, were common, as well as violence.

Another day, Eshaghian accompanied a Doctors Without Borders team doing water and sanitation work in the annex. He was shocked to see large areas of standing water, tents sinking into mud and piles of garbage. Everywhere he looked there were children — “bored, with nowhere for them to play or be stimulated,” he said.

Eshaghian said he wants Canadians to understand that children are suffering physically and psychologically.

The COVID-19 pandemic has narrowed our focus to our own situation, causing us to “turn a blind eye” to kids dying from malnutrition and other preventable conditions, he said.

“I just want to remind people that all these crises that were there before COVID haven’t gone away, and if we continue to forget about them, these kids will just continue to suffer.”

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Dr. Reza Eshaghian is a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. He hopes to bring awareness to the situation facing people detained in the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, including thousands of kids.
Dr. Reza Eshaghian is a doctor with Doctors Without Borders. He hopes to bring awareness to the situation facing people detained in the al-Hol refugee camp in Syria, including thousands of kids. Photo by Jason Payne /PNG

Several organization have been urging the Canadian government to focus on the situation in northern Syria, particularly the plight of the 45 Canadians detained in camps without trial.

“We’ve heard a number of excuses from the government on why they haven’t repatriated this group of Canadians, specifically the lack of consular services in Syria,” said Farida Deif, the Canada director at Human Rights Watch. “But dozens of other countries with no consulates have managed to do it.”

Deif blamed the situation on a lack of political will, since repatriating Canadians with potential links to the Islamic State could be controversial. “The government doesn’t want to spend the political capital,” she said.

While more than half of the Canadian detainees are children — and most of them are under the age of six — there are several high-profile Canadians in al-Hol as well, including Kimberly Polman, a B.C. woman who joined the Islamic State in 2015.

In an interview with the New York Times two years ago, Polman said she was born in Hamilton, but studied legal administration at Douglas College in Coquitlam. In 2011, she won a “women’s opportunity award” from Soroptimist International of the Tri-Cities. She converted to Islam and began spending much of her time online, where she met a Syrian man who said her skills were needed in the caliphate. In 2015, she flew from Vancouver to Istanbul, then travelled to Syria, where she married the man. A year later, she tried to escape, but was captured. After some time in prison, she was detained in al-Hol.

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Polman has family in B.C. Her brother and sister were not named in the New York Times article, but they told a reporter they didn’t know she had joined the Islamic State until they were notified by Canadian authorities.

Deif said it could be argued that leaving Canadians in the camps could pose a greater national security risk than bringing them home, pointing to the risk of radicalization.

In the case of children, they are being “collectively punished for choices they haven’t made,” she said. “These are Canadian children in a situation that is life-threatening. To leave them arbitrarily and indefinitely in these conditions amounts to cruel and inhumane treatment. The government should be seized with a matter that involves 24 Canadian kids.”

A photo of a child in al-Hol camp in northern Syria.
A photo of a child in al-Hol camp in northern Syria. Photo by Ricardo Garcia Vilanova /Médecins Sans Frontières/ Doctors Without Borders

In a statement, Global Affairs Canada said it is aware of Canadian citizens being detained in northern Syria and is “particularly concerned” with the Canadian children in the region.

“Given the security situation on the ground, the Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance in Syria is extremely limited. Canadian consular officials are actively engaged with Syrian Kurdish authorities for information on Canadians in their custody.”

Two Canadian children have been repatriated from northern Syria. In October 2020, an orphan named Amira was reunited with her uncle, who lives in Canada, after he lobbied for her to be repatriated, going so far as to file an application in Federal Court alleging the government was violating her rights as a Canadian citizen.

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In March, an American diplomat helped free a four-year-old girl, whose mother wanted her to have a better life with relatives in Canada. The mother remained in the camp.

At the time, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government “facilitated the travel documents” for the girl, but did not organize her exit from the camp.

According to Human Rights Watch, at least 20 countries have repatriated anywhere from one to several hundred of their citizens from camps and prisons in northern Syria, including Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Norway, the United Kingdom and the United States. France repatriated 10 children in June 2020.

UNICEF is also urging countries to repatriate their citizens, reminding UN member states of their obligations after a fire in al-Hol in February killed three children and injured 15 others.

“The detention of children is a measure of last resort and should be for the shortest time possible. Children should not be detained based solely on suspected family ties with armed groups or the membership of family members in armed groups,” said UNICEF’s regional director for the Middle East and North Africa, Ted Chaiban.

He said UN member states should do “everything possible” to repatriate and reintegrate their children into their own societies.

“We call on all member states to provide children — who are their citizens or born to their nationals — with civil documentation to prevent statelessness. This is in line with the best interests of the child and in compliance with international standards.”

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Eshaghian said the Canadian government must take responsibility for its citizens in the camps — “I’m supportive of anything that can be done,” he said — but his reason for speaking out is to increase awareness among the public about the suffering he encountered, which is “compounded by the hopelessness that surrounds the uncertainty of the future.”

The doctor left B.C. in November, when COVID-19 vaccines were on the horizon, but not widely available. Despite the pandemic, he said he felt compelled to go and intends to participate in another Doctors Without Border project in the future “wherever they need me.”

“We live in one world,” he said. “I don’t want to ignore the suffering of others. It’s important to me to work toward ending it.”

gluymes@postmedia.com

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