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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Rosanne Symons: South African doctor with a passion for Syria

Rosanne Symons next to the Orantes river in Darkoush, NW Syria; Credit:Rami Mustafa, a MedGlobal photographer

Dr. Rosanne Symons was born and raised in Johannesburg, South Africa, and completed her medical degree at the University of Cape Town. She has worked in a variety of medical disciplines including rural medicine and flying with an air rescue helicopter, and has obtained post-graduate diplomas in both Anesthetics and Mental Health.

Rosanne volunteers as a disaster relief doctor with Gift of the Givers, a South African humanitarian NGO, and one of her missions with them was to Syria during the revolution in April 2013. She also volunteers with the Syrian American Medical Society in the Al Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan and has visited their worksites in Beirut and the Beqaa Valley in Lebanon.

In 2019, she volunteered with MedGlobal among Syrian, Yazidi, and Kurdish refugees in the underserved camps of northern Iraq. Rosanne also visited Palestine last year where she endeavored to learn more about the reality on the ground and to show solidarity with those living under occupation.

Currently working as a trauma doctor in an emergency unit in Durban, South Africa, Rosanne also assists various surgeons in the operating theatre in addition to working in a Ketamine Clinic with the suicidal and those suffering from mood disorders and chronic pain conditions.

In her spare time, Rosanne is attempting to study Arabic and is a passionate advocate for Syria, Palestine, and other places where injustice and oppression occur.

SYRIAWISE was able to catch up with Dr. Rosanne Symons shortly after returning from her latest MedGlobal mission trip to NW Syria in early May.

Syriawise: What originally inspired you to get involved with the issues being faced by the Syrian people and led to you becoming a volunteer in Syria?

Dr. Rosanne Symons: Having been brought up in South Africa and becoming increasingly aware of the tragic consequences of oppression on both oppressor and oppressed, I had what I call a ‘personal never again’ moment. I decided that never would I remain indifferent or silent in situations of injustice, racism, or oppression, and that I would endeavor to use my privilege and relative freedom to amplify the cries of the unheard. Also, I was always drawn to disaster situations – eager to be a responder in earthquakes, tsunamis, and the like.

When the violence in Syria started becoming more frequent on the news channels, I was deeply concerned and longed to be able to be on the ground witnessing the suffering firsthand, standing in solidarity with the Syrian people, and helping in any way that I could.

I was in regular contact with Dr Imtiaz Sooliman, the leader of Gift of the Givers, a South African humanitarian NGO with whom I volunteer, and in early 2013 he told me that finally, the hospital he had been building in Idlib province was complete and that he would be sending a team of medical volunteers in April of that year.

With a little boy while on a SAMS mission in Alza3atari camp in NE Jordan, April 2018; Credit: James Buck

Syriawise: We know that you recently went with MedGlobal on your second medical mission to Syria in 10 years and that they and Gift of the Givers provide help and support to people on the ground. How well do you think the basic needs of the people in the areas that you visited are being met?

there are currently many Syrians who are profoundly undernourished, many who live in flimsy tents with inadequate water and heating, huge numbers of children who are not attending school

Dr. Rosanne Symons

Dr. Rosanne Symons: I actually volunteer with a number of NGOs – the ones you mentioned above and also SAMS (Syrian American Medical Society). I have been to Jordan a few times to serve the large Syrian refugee population there and on missions to Lebanon, Turkey, and northwestern Iraq.

Given the unthinkably difficult conditions that have existed in Syria over the past 12 years, I think the NGOs, in general, have done relatively well – trying to build cave and underground hospitals, smuggling food and medicines into the besieged areas, providing training on what to do in situations of chemical weapons attacks, offering virtual support to surgeons being overwhelmed by barrel bomb injuries, providing tele-mental health services, etc.

Non-medical NGOs have also worked hard to provide solar technology and makeshift housing for the internally displaced, tried to support the fragmented education system, and provide sanitation.

Of course, one can always find ways things can and should have been done better, but, given the worldwide donor fatigue, the magnitude and changing face of the crisis, the border closures, and the distressing UNSC vetoes, I think the NGOs did an enormous amount of good. That being said, there are currently many Syrians who are profoundly undernourished, many who live in flimsy tents with inadequate water and heating, huge numbers of children who are not attending school, and countless numbers of people who need psychological interventions, plastic surgery for their wounds, treatments for cancer and dialysis etc.

The NGOs continue to be essential in meeting the needs of the Syrian people.

“For more than 12 years, we have witnessed the strength of the Syrian people and have alternately been amazed and had our hearts broken by their incredible resiliency. It’s hard to imagine that the trauma they have experienced hasn’t taken some kind of toll.”

Dr. Rosanne Symons

Syriawise: While you were in Syria were you able to visit some of the areas recently affected by the earthquake?

Dr. Rosanne Symons: Yes, we spent a difficult day visiting some of the worst-hit areas. We drove past many destroyed houses and buildings in Armanaz and other towns west of Idlib. We stopped at the mosque that had been razed to the ground in Sarmada and saw many of the surrounding homes in varying stages of collapse. We also visited the destroyed village of Basania near Salqeen where both parents of Riad, my friend and MedGlobal’s logistics officer, were crushed to death in their home. We saw glass shards and steel rebar jutting out of enormous piles of rubble, pillows and shoes, toys, and schoolbooks bearing witness to precious lives that were no more. We shared a moment of silence together, standing on what had become the burial sites of hundreds of Syrians – a sacred and deeply moving experience.

In the operating theatre assisting Syrian American plastic surgeon, Dr Sami Bittar – in Darkoush

Syriawise: For more than 12 years, we have witnessed the strength of the Syrian people and have alternately been amazed and had our hearts broken by their incredible resiliency. It’s hard to imagine that the trauma they have experienced hasn’t taken some kind of toll. Do you believe there is a dire need for trauma therapy, or is that even possible to address when the crisis is still ongoing?

Dr. Rosanne Symons: In my opinion, no human can go through what the Syrians have had to and remain unscathed. We were simply not designed to handle the indescribable horror and hardship of family members ‘disappearing’ into Assad’s slaughterhouses, of being besieged, forced to flee, tortured, intimidated, starved, shot at, or bombed with conventional, barrel or chemical weapons etc.

Whilst I too stand in awe at the remarkable strength, resilience, and creativity of the Syrian people, there is not one who doesn’t have a heartbreaking story, not one on whom the compounded trauma of 12 years of conflict – and then the recent devastating earthquake – has not taken its toll.

There is an urgent need to address the mental health needs of this nation and to use all possible means at our disposal in doing so. These could include medication, counseling therapy (virtual and in-person), equipping lay people, training counselors in psychological first aid, capacity building in communities, etc. And yes, although the crisis is still ongoing, helpful interventions are definitely available and very much needed at this time.

“I had so many deeply touching moments – the emotion I felt when, after 10 long years of aching to return, my feet first touched Syrian soil, the tears that flowed when I was reunited with much-loved friends”

Dr. Rosanne Symons
With a Syrian lady in the KanSafra IDP camp at the MedGlobal PHC; Credit: Qusai Shabib

Syriawise: Do you have any touching or especially inspiring story you want to share with Syriawise from your recent visit to Syria? 

Dr. Rosanne Symons: It is not easy for me to choose only one story. I had so many deeply touching moments – the emotion I felt when, after 10 long years of aching to return, my feet first touched Syrian soil, the tears that flowed when I was reunited with much-loved friends, the many tender encounters I had with patients, and the incredible privilege of meeting so many wonderful and inspirational members of our team.

One story I can perhaps relay though, happened on the rooftop of the 3-story building in which we were staying in Idlib. I was enjoying some time alone, thinking through the events of the day and taking in the beauty of the setting sun, the dive-bombing swallows, and the sound of the adhan calling the faithful to prayer. After a while, I was joined by one of our team photographers, S, and we both watched in silence as the orb of the full moon quietly rose. At one point it seemed to slow down and stop, casting its light onto the free-Syrian flag directly below it – raised high above the skyline of Idlib. It was utterly breathtaking – like a scene from a movie.

In the male ward in AlRaHma hospital in Darkoush, Idlib

With the help of Google Translate, we started trying to put words to what we were seeing, both wishing we had some type of gadget that could capture this other-worldly moment.

We spoke about a few other matters, and then S started telling me a most painful story. Both his mother and father had been kidnapped by the regime and detained and tortured in one of Assad’s most notorious prisons. This was done as a form of punishment towards S for allegedly being seen at one of the rallies near his hometown early on in the uprising. A crushing burden for this young man to bear. The release of his parents two years later didn’t bring the joy he had anticipated as their bodies, souls, and minds bore the scars of the cruel torture and deprivation they had endured. Four years have passed since their release and he has not been able to see them or speak to them for fear of what would happen if he made direct contact. His parents live in an area under regime control and are being closely watched. For now, he has to be content with his sister-in-law relaying their messages to and fro.

I had to wipe the tears from my eyes a number of times as he was speaking, and so did he. Silence seemed to be the only fitting response to a story of such intense loss and ongoing pain. S expressed gratitude that I would listen to and show interest in his story; I felt profoundly privileged that he would share it with me.

The next day after breakfast S said that it felt like a burden had been lifted from his heart after speaking to me, and that he had had a deep and sweet night’s sleep for the first time in years.

“This kind person has felt the suffering of the Syrian people every day since her last visit to us 10 years ago. She came now to help us and sow optimism and hope in our hearts.”

A friend of Dr. Symons wrote on his Facebook page
The whole group of the MedGlobal team volunteers as they stepped onto Syrian soil at the Alrai border. Credit: Ahmed Muslim

Syriawise: One of your friends wrote the following about you on his Facebook page:

“This kind person has felt the suffering of the Syrian people every day since her last visit to us 10 years ago. She came now to help us and sow optimism and hope in our hearts. Despite the difficulties she faced, she insisted on returning to us to help after the earthquake and to alleviate our pain and suffering. She left today to go back to South Africa, and we are hoping she will return again as soon as possible. She always stays by our side and supports us in our revolution. She is great.  We really respect and appreciate her.”

Is there a message you would like to send back to him and the people you met in Syria?

Dr. Rosanne Symons: I fell unashamedly in love with the Syrian people when I first crossed into their beautiful blood-soaked land in 2013. It has been a privilege and an honor for me to pray for them, weep with them, advocate for them, tell their stories, celebrate with them, and stand with them in their cause. And so my message to dear Omar and to all Syrians would be – you have my whole heart. Know that I will be with you and support you in whichever way I possibly can until you are free, healed, and whole; flourishing as you so richly deserve. 

6 COMMENTS

  1. You are one of the most beautiful, best, and most loving people, tenderness, honesty, and affection. Thank you for coming to our country. I met you and translated for you on the first visit, and I came back to meet you the second time, and I do not wish it to be the last. I wish all the best and happiness so that it is not surprising that I have not forgotten the details of working with you ten years ago. You are one of the people who do not forget, with all love and appreciation Hossam

    • Hossam.. thank you for these very beautiful and gracious words. I appreciate you taking the time to write a comment.
      It was a real highlight for me to be able to reconnect with you again, after 10 long and pain-filled years. I really hope I will be able to come back to Syria soon. 🌸🕊

    • شكرا لك على تعليقك. إنه لشرف عظيم لي أن أقف إلى جانب الشعب السوري

  2. Great article
    Thank you from the heart for standing with us. You were and still are the best and most beautiful person who stands with the people of Syria with love and gratitude.
    Thank you for transferring our suffering to all countries
    I salute you for your efforts and I hope we will meet again

  3. Safe.. thank you so much for taking the time to write a comment, and for your very kind words. I am honoured.
    It was a dream come true for me to be able to return to Syria, and to meet with so many old friends and make new ones. I really hope I can return soon.. 🙏🏻🌸🕊

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