Working with SAMS highlights human goodness for Dr. Hassan Alzein
– When confronted with poverty, violence and cruelty, Dr. Hassan Alzein looks in a different direction. He sees the kindness, compassion and selflessness of human nature amidst the tragedy.
Dr. Alzein, a pediatrician in Chicago’s southwest suburbs, is a founding member of SAMS, the Syrian American Medical Society. He recently completed a medical mission to Lebanon.
“One person can have such an impact. For instance, an oncology nurse from New York realized there is an urgent need for shoes in these refugee camps, so when she returned to the United States, she organized a project, collected thousands of shoes and sent them to Lebanon. What a difference she made,” says Dr. Alzein.
Dr. Alzein and SAMS have made quite a difference too. Founded in 1998, SAMS brings together thousands of healthcare professionals in the United States and around the globe, providing members with networking, educational, cultural, and professional services. While SAMS organizes and facilitates medical missions to provide healthcare to Syrians inside Syria as well as in refugee camps in Jordan, Turkey and Greece, Lebanon camps are a special case. “This area is extremely fragmented. Most of the region is controlled by militias, but it’s difficult to understand who controls what. There is a great deal of instability and that is very dangerous. Refugees in these camps are desperate,” says Alzein.
“It took me years to collect my courage to go to Lebanon. It was only after seeing my colleagues going and then returning safely that I thought it was okay to go myself. It’s an unusual place for medical missions to go,” says Dr. Alzein.
More than 11 million Syria citizens have been killed or become refugees since Syria’s civil war began, creating the worst humanitarian crisis of this generation. Nearly 5 million Syrians are currently refugees. Over 1 million of these refugees are registered in Lebanon; that population is nearly a quarter of the population of Lebanon itself. About half of the refugees are children.
After spending his first two missions in 2015 and 2016 in clinics, working with SAMS and NGOs (nongovernmental organizations), Dr. Alzein spent his time this year within the refugee camp itself. The camp designated a room for the physicians, surgeons and specialists to use as a clinic and the team started seeing patients.
In camp and in other locations, the team saw over 1,400 patients in just 5 days. Dr. Alzein himself examined and treated 229 children. They also participated in educational and social events to support the refugees.
“The health care facilities in Lebanon are not equipped to handle such a huge influx of people. The refugees are poor, so local doctors cannot devote too much time to helping them when they cannot pay. They have no transportation, so they cannot travel to clinics,” he said.
The children he sees have been acutely affected by their dire situation. “I’m speaking to a 4- or 5-year old and he is talking as if he is 12 or 13. There is a maturity there which is unhealthy. There are like little men instead of children. It’s not normal. These children have been robbed of their childhood.”
In fact, refugee children have been adversely affected by this crisis – tremendously. Despite the best efforts of adult refugees to set up schools and maintain educational standards, they have fallen years behind. They have suffered physical trauma and psychological trauma. They are typically malnourished and suffer from a larger incidence of illnesses than average. Children who have lost parents and guardians are at extreme risk of abuse and exploitation. Dr. Christine Latif of World Vision says, “The children of Syria have experienced more hardship, devastation and violence than anyone should have to in a thousand lifetimes.”
“In years past, I have seen children who are anxious and frightened in this living situation. Now, it is worse, because these children have become resigned to “this is my life”. We are past the acute phase and they are living with PTSD,” says Alzein.
Few children receive vaccinations, Dr. Alzein says, because vaccines require special handling and refrigeration in transport, impossible to achieve. He stresses that proper vaccination should be a priority and hopes the United Nations will address this situation soon.
“My job for these five days was to provide urgent care services – treat fevers, bacteria infections, dehydration. It is a challenge as proper medications and supplies are always an unknown factor. We are very limited in what we can bring into the camps,” he stated.
“We are scavengers,” Dr. Alzein says. “We survive on donations.” But instead of worrying about the lack of supplies, he is awed by the giving human spirit.
The best days, he says, are when the containers arrive. “People donate from all around the world. I was there last year when a container was opened and it was so wonderful. We were happy – unloading boxes and taking pictures.”
Any one of those containers might hold medications, medical hardware or medical equipment. SAMS techs dissemble, ship and then reassemble just about anything; dental chairs, x-ray and other diagnostic equipment, wheel chairs and more.
“When a physician’s office, clinic, surgical center or hospital is getting new equipment, we hope they consider donating to SAMS or any other NGO medical mission. Any equipment – no matter how small or large – is needed and will be gratefully accepted.”
Dr. Alzein and his practice, Alzein Pediatrics, have their own history of giving. Both Dr. Alzein and his wife, a registered pharmacist, volunteer on SAMS medical missions. Alzein Pediatric offices in both Oak Lawn and Evergreen Park are donation sites for SWADDLE, Southwest Area Diaper Depository for Little Ends. They are also registered Little Free Libraries, helping children become book owners and improving literacy rates.
It’s not just medical supplies that these displaced children and their families need. Those shoes, for instance, clothing, coats and blankets are all needed as well. Dr. Alzein says, “I’ve learned that when you ask, people really want to help. It’s what makes us human, what connects us around the world. When someone is in need, there is someone there to help.”