Syrians Recover From War Wounds in Under-Funded Rehab Centers

With eyes and limbs missing, FSA soldiers and rebel supporters hope the war doesn't outlast the availability of medical supplies.
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A Free Syrian Army soldier recovers at a rehab hospital in Reyhanli, Turkey from injuries sustained in combat in Syria. He lost an eye and suffered major injuries to his torso. (Jake Naughton)

Ala, 13, sits in his wheelchair, shifting uncomfortably from side to side. His father lies on a bed next to him. He looks worn. The skin under his eyes sags. There are four other children in the room, all of them recovering from injuries caused by bombs dropped by President Bashar al-Assad's forces. Unlike many of the patients in the makeshift rehabilitation center in Reyhanli, Turkey, Ala has all of his limbs.

It does not feel like it, he says. His arms and legs are attached to his body, but it's hard for him to move them. Ala was playing soccer in the streets with his friends last month when a bomb fell from the sky. Now he has a piece of shrapnel lodged into his upper neck, and it is pinching a nerve in his spine. He cannot walk or hold anything too tightly. His head bobs loosely from side to side when he answers questions.

"I want to be a writer, too," Ala says. "But not before Bashar leaves," an older man yells.

"Friends? No I don't have friends. Just them," Ala says, flailing his arm to the right, toward the other patients in the room.

The other boys in the room are in their beds, heads tilted up toward the small TV on the opposite wall. News of bloodshed in Syria flashes over the screen as dramatic music plays in the background. One boy flips the channel--more news from Syria. He keeps flipping. Finally, he finds a cartoon--a more soothing alternative.

"I want to be a writer, too," Ala says.

"But not before Bashar leaves," an older man yells from across the room. Everyone looks at the man and then back to the screen. They will watch TV the rest of the day.

For more than two years, Turkey has acted as a space for Syrians like Ala to flee the perpetual violence in their country. They come to Turkey to rehabilitate both physically and emotionally -- to heal and to return back to Syria after the war ends. Thousands of Syrians have flooded into refugee camps with their families, where at least they know they will not hear bombs at night. And wounded victims like Ala are recovering from burns and breaks in temporary rehab centers on the border. But with tensions increasing in Ankara, the Turkish government may not have the capacity to both handle the chaos brewing in the streets and help provide for the Syrians at the same time.

With government supplies running low, Syrians living in Turkey have already begun caring for themselves. Ghassan Abboud, the owner of Orient TV in Syria, funds this rehab center independently from the Turkish government.

There are four rooms in the Orient hospital. The room next to Ala's is painted in pastel blue and faces the mountains thousands of Syrians have crossed on their journey to Turkey. This room is much different--it is filled with the groans of men who were torn from the streets of a war they had made their own. Most of the men in the room fought with the Free Syrian Army in Aleppo before being brought to a hospital in Syria and then transferred to this rehab center in Reyhanli.

The men are swapping stories, propped up on their beds. One has his laptop out on the bed. He can only type with one hand. His left leg and his right arm have been sliced off. The man in the bed next to his has both of his arms, but his left leg is distorted--bent and twisted under his right.

Out the doorway of this room is a porch where a man sprawls on a couch. His right hand props his head up. A patch covers the space where his right eye would still be if it had not been removed. A white plastic tube spills out of his torso -- attached to it is a bag for his blood. The bag hangs from his body and drapes over the couch. It sits on the floor in front of him where he can see it fill.

Almost all of the patients in the hospital are without their families, except for Ala. But most say they do not want to go home to Syria after they heal. They say they want to stay in Turkey where it is safe. Not one patient had their entire family near the hospital: Their mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters travel through the border or come from the camps in Turkey to visit them.

Sitting at the entrance of the Orient Hospital are two flags--one FSA and one Turkish--a strange, forced symbol of a partnership that doctors here say does not exist.

Recent events in Turkey have made some Syrian refugees, and their doctors, feel that they are not wanted in the country. On May 16, two bombs exploded in the center of Reyhanli, killing 50 people. The investigation is still ongoing, but police have said those responsible were connected to the Syrian government. Large masses of people gathered in the following days to protest the government's stance on the Syrian war--and for opening the borders to hundreds of thousands of Syrians, some of whom are connected to Syrian opposition parties such as the radical al-Nusra front.

Earlier this month, violent clashes broke out between police forces and protesters in Taksim Square in Istanbul and in the streets of Ankara. Thousands of people gathered to protest against an approved project to renovate Gezi Park near Taksim Square and replace it with an Ottoman-era military barracks to be used as a shopping mall. All eyes are now on Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan as he scrambles to quell rising dissent in the country. If Turkey continues to experience massive protests, it could choose to focus on domestic reconciliation and close its doors to Syrians. Alexander Aleinikoff, the U.N.'s Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, has said that it's "absolutely...viewed as a possibility" that Syria's neighboring countries could tighten border controls.

If borders close, Syrians could be forced to stay in the war zone without proper medical care. The hospitals in Syria are equipped to treat trauma patients, but there is no room or resources for long-term rehabilitation for patients like those in Orient Hospital.

Ala fiddles with a small toy flashlight one woman visiting the hospital gives him. He cannot hold it tight enough to flip it open. He says he will continue to work on his motor functions. He will stay in the center until he can't any longer--until the hospital runs out of money or someone tells him he needs to leave.

Finding relative peace in Turkey is not the most ideal situation for Ala. Unlike many of the patients in the hospital, Ala wants to go home and play soccer again with his friends. He does not want to spend his days sitting in a wheelchair flipping back and forth between war and cartoons. But for now, this is his life. Wake up, sit, watch, and wait.

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Erin Banco is a freelance journalist based in New York.

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