A Comox physician who grew up amid war and upheaval in Iran shared his experience helping Syrian refugees with an audience in Port Alberni.
On March 26 at Trinity Church, Dr. Saren Azer showed a slide show to 15 people that chronicled his experience working in a Syrian refugee camp in Domiz, Northern Iraq in 2012.
An internist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Comox, Azer, 47, wasn’t just a Canadian who went on a humanitarian mission. A Kurd by descent, he spoke with gravitas because he fled similar conditions two decades earlier in Iran.
“The camp I worked in was full of people who suffered from the effects of war, death, upheaval and starvation,” the now married father of four said. “Living in Canada, I’d lost touch with the reality I once lived in. It was an awakening, an honour, to be in the camp again and help.”
Azer was in Port Alberni canvassing for donations for Medical Hope for Syria, an initiative which he has partnered with Health Partnerships International to access medical supplies and transport them to Domiz, as well as other camps.
The group has tentatively scheduled a mission to Domiz this summer, organizer Lynn Foster said.
Port Alberni resident John Mayba became aware of Azer’s work though Courtenay social activist David Talbot, who helped establish Alberni’s World Craft Bazaar a decade ago.
“Dave started sending me emails about his (Azer’s) work and said “You should bring this guy to Port,”” Mayba said.
According to Azer, the supplies consist of doctor’s pack which contains 600 doses of antibiotics, analgesics, electrolytes and anti-fungal agents. Each pack costs $575, much less than the retail cost of $6,000, and saves approximately 60 lives.
Health Partners International, as well as a donor in Calgary match every dollar donated to the initiative. “Every dollar donated is leveraged 20-1 and that translates into a lot of lives saved,” Azer said.
The refugees are fleeing a civil war between government and revolutionary forces that started in 2011 and continues. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that more than 140,000 people have been killed during the two-and-a-half-year conflict. The United Nations estimates that more than three million people so far have been displaced and have fled to camps in Iraq, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan.
“Both sides in the conflict see aid workers as the enemy so it is very dangerous to try and work inside Syria” Azer said. “It’s safe to work in the camps though.”
Born and raised in North West Iran, Azer fled the persecution of Kurds and arrived in Canada as a political refugee 20 years ago. He chooses to volunteer in Domiz out of a filial obligation. “In my life, I remember the wars and the hunger, but I remember all of the deaths that went unacknowledged,” he said.
“My dream was that one day I could do something for the people left behind.”
In Canada, he worked his way through school and in 2007 earned his MD from the University of Calgary. He moved to Comox with his family in 2012.
Azer first visited Domiz in 2007 and last in 2012. He and his colleagues knew the language and the lay of the land and established aid infrastructure easily.
Azer said he was struck by the sheer mass of humanity teeming in the camps. According to the group Qandil, Domiz is home to more than 45,000 refugees. The camps are overcrowded and don’t have requisite sanitary conditions to cope. Diseases such as cholera, meningitis and respiratory illness, which Azer said he rarely sees in Canada, thrive as a result.
“I remember the long lines of people, hundreds and hundreds of people, waiting to be treated every day,” Azer said. “I treated up to 80 patients a day, 75 per cent of them women and children.”
After his last trip to Domiz, Azer thought about what more he could do when he returned to Canada. He started the The International Society of Peace and Human Rights, and hatched the Medical Hope For Syria project.
“I’ve seen many instances where individuals have made a difference. I know that one person can accomplish a lot,” he said.
Azer’s presentation left a lasting impression on Mayba. “It’s not just that he knew what he was talking about, but he spoke with such dignity and respect about the people in the camps who needed help,” Mayba said. “You were listening to someone who had been profoundly impacted by what he witnessed.”
Syria might be 10,500 kilometres away from Port Alberni but caring about other human beings needs should bridge the distance. “Caring for another human life should come before anything that might distance us from one another,” Azer said.
“And if this crisis shifted here, then citizens would expect others to help, so of course we should care. This is the basis of humanity.”