The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) was created in 1998. Its initial goal was to provide networking opportunities to Syrian American physicians. The organization also gave physicians the opportunity to give back to the Syrian community through different charitable events. Beginning in 2002 SAMS’ organized medical missions to help people in the Syrian area including refugees in countries like Turkey and Greece.
In recent years as the Syrian conflict has escalated, the work of SAMS has become even more important. Dr. Hisham Bismar, the man at the center of Skye Fitzgerald’s film 50 Feet from Syria,* is an active member of SAMS. For the past 30 years, he has lived in the United States, and he is currently based in Portland. The following is an informal interview conducted with Dr. Bismar via email discussing his involvement with the SAMS.
When/why did you get involved in The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS)?
I became a member of the society in 2012. I was following the news coming out of Syria very closely, and the Society seemed to provide information about the medical situation inside Syria and the status of the healthcare system. I decided to volunteer with the Society because I was getting frustrated with the deteriorating situation inside of Syria. I felt like I couldn’t channel my frustration into doing something useful to help others.
After watching 50 Feet from Syria, many viewers will feel compelled to act/help in some way. How do you suggest people help? Are there other organizations besides SAMS that you recommend people support?
Everyone can provide something to help in this situation regardless of whether they are a healthcare professional or not. I believe that the least anyone can do is to educate themselves about this conflict because it does have ramifications directly or indirectly on our society. One way you can become more involved is by contacting your representatives and urging them to pay more attention to the situation over there and to devise ways of solving it. Collecting donations or soliciting for medical supplies that can be donated to SAMS is another way to help. Obviously, if one is a healthcare professional, then joining one of SAMS missions to the region would be very valuable and an eye-opening experience.
Do you plan to travel on any medical missions this year, or have you recently returned from one?
I just came back from a mission to Jordan and Turkey a few weeks ago. I spent a week in each country operating on Syrian refugees.
Treating victims of war, especially children, is an intense experience. How do you avoid burnout/what keeps you going in these situations?
To know that at least some of the patients I treated are benefiting from the surgery is what keeps me going. This is especially true when I operate on children with war injuries. It does give me a lot of satisfaction to know they will have a better chance of surviving in the future due to the surgeries. It is very upsetting to see these were injuries particularly in kids and to see their future affected adversely and their dreams crushed.
In April President Trump launched missiles at a Syrian government air base. What was your reaction to this event? How do you think American political leaders should respond to the situation in Syria?
In general I am against using force in the situation; however, when you have a dictator who repeatedly defies the will of the international community and repeatedly gasses his own people, then it is the responsibility of the international community to act accordingly to prevent the use of chemical weapons. In this case, I do believe that the use of force was justified.
I wonder if the situation we are currently in would have been different if President Obama had acted upon his “Red Line.” Tyrants and dictators will always push the envelope to see what they can get away with. They have a bully mentality, and the only language they understand is the use of force. I do believe that this area and conflict would not have deteriorated to this extent if the international community had been more involved and more forceful with the warring parties, particularly with the Syrian regime.
*Skye Fitzgerald was recently inducted as an honorary member of SAMS by the national leadership council in recognition of his commitment to the SAMs mission to assist the displaced in need of medical care.