Chapter III: Escape



Everyone is leaving Syria, even doctors.

"I’ve been working here in Kilis [in Turkey] since March 2013. Before the war there was a clinic in the city of Aleppo in Syria. I went there and back every day from my village, which was further north. At first it took an hour. In the end, with the Islamic State or other opposition groups in control, it took many hours. My house was near a military post. I left in 2012. I have no idea what happened to mine, but I know that the surrounding houses were destroyed. I am not the only one. Patients always tell me similar stories: there was a bombing and they fled Syria, and now they are here in Kilis. They talk about Europe all the time. Many want to go there."

These are the words of a Syrian paediatrician who asked that we call him Mohamed to preserve his anonymity.


MSF clinic in Kilis provides paediatric care to Syrian children, many of whom arrive with injuries, respiratory problems, or other diseases. | ANNA SURINYACH


Kilis is the beginning of the road for many refugees leaving Syria, a grey and melancholy city in southern Turkey that filled up with Syrians when the fighting began.  Kilis is the nearest town to the border crossing from Northern Syria into Turkey.  Wave after wave of civilians has moved through Kilis as people flee the barrel bombs of the Assad regime, the attacks of the Islamic State, and the fighting between rebel groups.

Kilis is where many refugees begin their exodus.

One of Mohamed’s colleagues at the clinic, Dr Zahra Ibrahim, also has a story to tell. A story of war and escape that has been repeating itself for years.

Syrian doctor, Ibrahim Zahra, in the MSF clinic in Kilis. | ANNA SURINYACH

“I’ve been working here since May 2014,” he says. “What I see most are chronic diseases, hypertension, heart disease, hepatitis, respiratory infections... I used to work in my own clinic in Syria, but that was a daily tragedy. A missile would fall a hundred metres away, and then another, and another and another...”

“Basically, I’m lucky,” he continues. “I didn’t have any patients, because everyone was fleeing, and then I also left. I came to Kilis with my wife and two daughters. A week later, my clinic was destroyed by a barrel bomb.”

Ibrahim laughs as he says this, like someone who defied destiny and lived to tell the tale.

In Kilis, after the start of the war, MSF worked with a local NGO called Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly (HCA) to set up a primary healthcare clinic. There are three doctors at the clinic. Three doctors with frighteningly similar stories, which explain why doctors are leaving Syria.

One is a friendly surgeon named Mannan Hannas.

Mannan Hannas has been treating Syrian refugees since 2012. | ANNA SURINYACH

“I’ve been living in Kilis since 2012,” he says. “I remember we were in Azaz, in northern Syria, a few kilometres from here, during the month of Ramadan in 2012. It was on 15 August. I’ll never forget.”

“I was wearing a vest for sleeping, we were lying down, and a barrel bomb exploded about 15 metres away. The whole family was in one room, my little boy with his head on my chest. I fainted and when I regained consciousness the room was full of dust. I felt something liquid, I had blood on my hands. I thought I had lost my legs but I looked and they were still there…nothing had happened. I tried to escape, but I couldn’t see the door. There were about 50 people, many injured, and we went to the hospital. Then I washed but I couldn’t get rid of all the dirt on me.”

The three doctors work in the MSF clinic in Kilis, but who knows how long they will stay in the city.

In the medical centre’s little kitchen reserved for the staff, there hangs a picture of the team that worked here years ago. Behind me, one of the staff says “Germany, France, the UK,” pointing at different people in the photograph.

Everyone is leaving. To Europe, or to wherever else they can go and start a new life.