It has been over six years since Syrians experienced the tumultuous Arab spring that forced many to flee their homes for refuge in nearby regions or far from their native country. Osman Ahmad, MD, a pediatric gastroenterology fellow at UAB, saw firsthand the costs of being displaced by war. In May, Ahmad joined 10 physicians from various specialties for a five-day medical mission trip to Amman, Jordan, traveling with the Islamic Medical Association of North America.
"When you hear about how to help people in need, giving money is great, and they need lots of it," Ahmad said. "But if you have the skill and can use that to help, it's important to do that. I practice medicine and can take that anywhere in the world. It means so much to the people you help."
Ahmad learned of the organization and its work when a friend in New York posted information about his trip on Facebook. As he learned more, he planned his own mission trip to aid refugees, whose needs were often straightforward, but critical.
"We saw people who had hypertension and diabetes that had gone untreated," Ahmad said. "Here, if you run out of insulin or blood pressure medicine, a doctor will refill it. Even if these refugees could have gotten a refill, they would not have been able to afford it. We were able to provide simple things that we take for granted here, like vitamins and common antibiotics like amoxicillin."
Going into a conflict zone, Ahmad was uncertain about the peril and about the people he would be assisting. In meeting them, he realized most had been financially stable or affluent with well-ordered lives before war upturned their world.
"When you get there and see the kind of conditions these people are living in, you realize that our lives are different but we want the same things," Ahmad said. "You try to put yourself in their shoes, and I don't think I could do what they have done and be as hopeful as they are."
As he provided medical care, he realized one of their greatest needs of refugees was to connect on an emotional level.
"The biggest part of what we did was just listening to their stories," he said. "It was like therapy for them to tell somebody else about it, and they wanted us to go out and share their stories. It's amazing that they still have so much hope."
Ahmad said many of the refugees wish to eventually return to their homes, while others accept there is nothing left to return to because their family and friends have been killed. They left their homeland with young children and now are raising teenagers.
"It made me grateful for running water and electricity, but I was also thankful for things like being able to take my kids to the park -- things we take for granted," Ahmad said. "When I came back, I felt very blessed to live in a place like America."
Ahmad was born in Orlando, Florida, where his immigrant parents met and married. His mother, a pediatrician from India, and his father, an engineer from Pakistan, epitomized living the American dream with him and his three sisters.
Going to Jordan and working at these clinics was his way of giving back. He personally saw at least 300 patients, and his group saw more than 2,500 in that short time.
"One of the reasons I wanted to do this and found it so rewarding is that you can give a little hope -- even if that changes the life of just one person," Ahmad said. "I saw a mom with three kids when I was there. The older son was the one who really touched me. He was very quiet. Through a translator I asked, and his mother said he saw much more than he should have. He had bedwetting issues and nightmares.
"I can't even imagine what this family was going through, but we were blowing bubbles for them, and he smiled. They had a moment of happiness they all could share."
Such moments for this widow and her children are fleeting, Ahmad realizes, and he plans to work with other such medical mission trips in the future.