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Syrian Doctors In San Diego Launch Relief Effort

September 10, 2013 1:22 p.m.


Dr. Alma Harb, Physician, UC San Diego Health System

Tom Reifer, Professor of Sociology, University of San Diego

Related Story: Syrian Doctors In San Diego Launch Relief Effort


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Events are changing rapidly, surrounding the issue of chemical weapons in Syria. Syrian officials said they would agree with a proposal to surrender their chemical weapons. And tonight, President Obama will address the nation regarding the new developments and his belief the U.S. should be prepared for a strike against Syria. This stems from evidence that the government of al-Assad used come weapons last month, killing 400 men, women, and children. People point out that the cost in human life and suffering in Syria far exceeds the victims of chemical weapons. More than 100,000 people have died in Syria. My guests, Dr. Alma Harb, assistant professor in UC San Diego and Medical Society in San Diego. Welcome to the program.

HARB: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: And Tom Reifer is here, associate professor of sociology at the university of San Diego, and a fellow at the transnational institute. Welcome back to the show.

REIFER: Thank you. Good to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Harb, I think with all the attention on the use of chemical weapons, and the possibility of a U.S. military strike, we may be losing sight of the overall conflict. Can you remind us how this has affected civilians in the past few years?

HARB: Absolutely. Syrians are going through a total collapse of the healthcare system. Imagine we have over 93% of hospitals in Syria destroyed or totally damaged. The existing hospitals that do not have the essential medical supplies and equipment and medications, no power to run the hospitals, we have over 90% of medications that -- over half of the physicians have fled outside the country, witnessing epidemic diseases like measles on the rise in Syria. In addition to all of that, we have the chemical assault that not only had murdered 1,400, including over 4 children, but we are just dealing with the gas effects of over 10,000 people.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Harb, do you still have family in Syria?

HARB: I do.

CAVANAUGH: What are they telling you about the conflict?

HARB: They are scared. They are really worried what's going to happen next. There's no place in Syria that is safe for them. There's no power, that's no -- enough food. There's a big rise in cost for living there. And they are afraid to leave the country as well because there's no place to go, otherwise they will go to refugee camp, and the condition of living in there, and the health conditions are miserable.

CAVANAUGH: When you hear this, I believe that you grew up in Syria, how do you remember your country? &%F0

HARB: Well, I was born and grew up in Damascus, capital of Syria. My mom, family of five, my family was from Aleppo. We spent most of our summers in Aleppo. Enjoyed the peace, enjoyed -- it's a third world country. We were trying to make the best of it. But I definitely felt safe.

CAVANAUGH: As opposed to the say your family is telling you they feel now.

HARB: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: They can't even leave their home, are they don't know what to do.

HARB: Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor Harb, you're part of the Syrian medical society here in society. Tell us about the "save Syrian lives campaign."

HARB: It's a national society. And we just started a chapter here in San Diego. And I noticed that all the regions going to the community, trying to fund the program that is very essential, but I found that we need to outreach to the community, to the American homes, I would like to help, and point to them the urgency to address the healthcare crisis in Syria.

CAVANAUGH: Let me go to you, professor, Americans are trying to figure out what they have to do with the conflict in Syria. Just has the international community done anything to try to stop this conflict?

POOLE: Well, even though people make a lot of claims about doing things to stop the conflict, there is definitely a lot of parties in the region and outside the region that are involved in funding the conflict on all sides. One of the reasons I'm honored to be here with doctor Harb is that 1 of the things that all people of good will have to do is put front and center the suffering of the Syrian people and how that is addressed. This crisis isn't going to go away. It shows that we're all deeply interconnected. And even if the military strikes are averted, there is still a horrible civil war, millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands to a million refugeos to other conserves in the region. Unless this crisis is addressed and parties figure out some solution to the conflict based on dignity and justice, then it's going to embroil the world, and that will be horrible for the Syrian people, and the rest of the region and the world. I know some people who I agree with on everything, they are in favor of military strikes. I'm opposed to it. But what we do agree on is that we have to keep the concerns of the Syrian people front and center and address the enormous suffering that's going on.

CAVANAUGH: Doctor, Tom makes mention of the fact that the refugee crisis is also the ancillary crisis of this Syrian civil war. There are so many people who have been forced or felt forced to leave because of the conflict. Tell us about the situation in the refugee camps.

HARB: As you probably know, we have estimated number of close to 2 million refugees, which accounts for over 10% of Syria's population. The largest population of refugees in the world world. The conditions in those camps are far below the standards, minimum standards of health, basic healthcare and health needs. We have every day hundreds of newborns in the camps, no vaccinations, no baby formula available for them, not even essential life sustaining.

CAVANAUGH: What about humanitarian outreach to the camps themselves? Are there countries, are there international societies that are trying to make a difference there?

HARB: Absolutely. The countries are trying hard to -- multiple emergency funds being sent to help those origin camps. But we have to remember that we have people inside Syria and difficulty reaching them. And those people that we need to -- these are the people the most need for the basic healthcare. So the Syrian medical society have built and established about 25 field hospitals inside the country of Syria. In addition to that, also tried to train physicians and first responders to triage patients and take care of especially the risk for chemical assault in the future.

CAVANAUGH: How dangerous is it for one of those volunteer doctors now in Syria?

HARB: They're risking their life. It's very dangerous, of course. They're at risk as much as the -- every single person in the street. In fact, they are -- we see every day in the use attacks to hospitals. We have missiles targeting the healthcare centers that have been built. To help people.

CAVANAUGH: Tom, is there evidence that the Syrian government had already used chemical weapons against opposition forces?

REIFER: Well, I talked to leading chemical weapons experts off the record. And it's complicated. The British government claimed that there were I think between 11 and 14 uses of chemical weapons. Other experts I talked to off the record say they've done the analysis, and it's just too hard to tell. Certainly nobody would be surprised in terms of human rights that the Syrian regime -- over 100,000 people have been killed in the civil war. But so do also the funders of some of the sectarian elements in the opposition. The opposition is mixed between people who take up arms to defend themselves, but also the Saudis are involved. But chemical weapons are a particularly horrible weapon. But of course a lot of people have been getting killed with other weapons. It's an escalating situation, and it's that suffering that needs to be addressed and reversed.

CAVANAUGH: What do you hear from the people that you know in Syria and from your contact business within Syria? Have chemical weapons been used before last month?

HARB: I really don't have exact information from that, but from my understanding, there are multiple chemical weapons assaults utilized in different areas of the country.

CAVANAUGH: Tom, in general, do you think the world community -- it seems like Syria sort of erupted into our consciousness about two, three weeks ago. And this conflict has been going on for two years. Of course we've seen news reports about it, but it hasn't become this crucial element that we're discussing in Washington DC, we're discussing at the United Nations. Do you think the world community waits too long to offer humanitarian aid?

REIFER: Absolutely. And all of us in the United States and the world are responsible. I heard a woman from Syria say the world as failed us, and that's absolutely true. The world has failed Syria. But can't go back into the past and change what we did. But what we can do is take appropriate steps to deal with the humanitarian crisis to try to find some solution to deescalate the conflict, and find a solution so the one million refugee children, that there's a just solution. And there's been a debate in this country about whether we're involved, and whether we should pay attention. A lot of that is because a lot of people disagree with the notion of military response. But the problem doesn't just go away even if the United States decides not to do a military strike. We saw in other countries in the world, escalating violence threatens the entire world community. So what's happening to the Syrian community is what's happening to all of us in our world. It's different to say that sitting here in nice, comfortable San Diego. But in a profound sense, we have to realize that we're interconnected.

CAVANAUGH: Besides the Syrian American medical society trying to set up field hospitals within Syria to try to do something to help the people, are there other facilities, organizations who are trying to do the same thing still within Syria or has the nation become too dangerous?

HARB: Yes, in fact there were organizations that are specifically reaching out for relief funds within the country. It is difficult. Most of the funding funding is going toward the borders. But we are trying to get the help where it should go.

CAVANAUGH: I'm interested to ask you, I mentioned before in our open that the developments about the politics surrounding Syria are developing quickly. Russia may be proposing to Syria that they give up their chemical weapons and they are monitored by an international community. Do you believe they actually would surrender its chemical weapons?

HARB: You know, I'm not sure. I think the focus here is that we have to put every single effort to help the Syrians survive; treat the victims, the innocent victims of this. Of course we'd like 206 a peaceful resolution, a stop for the fight, but we should never forget that there are this other side which is probably the most important aspect of this tragedy, the humanitarian and medical crisis that we are witnessing.

CAVANAUGH: And Tom, it's worth pointing out I would imagine that even if this deal goes through, it would be remarkable. But it wouldn't necessarily stop the conflict in Syria.

REIFER: Not at all. And I was talking to leading international security experts today, and there's two things which could be interrelated. The issue of chemical weapons is just part of the escalation of the conflict. Any momentumol that front has to ultimately go into addressing this escalating civil war. More people are dying every day. We want a situation in which fewer people die, more people are saved, in which the world adequately responds to this before it engulfs the region and the entire world further.

CAVANAUGH: The Syrian American medical society is having a fundraiser, two of them actually this month. The next one is this Saturday at the Alladin Hillcrest cafe from 10:00 to noon.