Good Samaritans of the Valley of the Christians in Syria
Mzeina Hospital is situated in the small town of the same name, one of several that make up the Valley of the Christians (Wadi Al-Nasara in Arabic), a rural region of Syria, close to the frontier with Lebanon and roughly halfway between the city of Homs and the Mediterranean coast. “The hospital has been open for four years now and for the past two years the number of admitions, operations and basic treatments has been growing steadily” the hospital director, Dr Sam Abboud, assures us.
The war which continues to tear this country apart seems a long way from this region, yet the doctors and their co-workers at the hospital assure us that the situation is still as bad as or worse than before. “People come to us asking for help and tell us that in other hospitals they couldn’t get treatment because they did not have enough money. We don’t simply tell them to go away; we try to help them in every way we can,” says Toni Tannous, the head of the physiotherapy team.
The doctors themselves and the other employees at the hospital have themselves had personal experience of the consequences of the war. “I myself had to flee from Homs because of the war,” Toni continues, “and now I am working here. All of us feel a sense of responsibility in one way or another to help in whatever way we can.” This hospital, which treats thousands of people every month and has almost 500 inpatients, works in collaboration with the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre run by the Melkite Catholic Church in the nearby town of Marmarita.
“From the health centre run by the Melkite Church in Marmarita we attend to over a hundred urgent medical cases a month, in addition to other cases where we pay for medicines. We take the families to the hospital and have a working agreement with the Mzeina Hospital to treat them there,” explains Elías Jahloum, a volunteer and coordinator of the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre. “In the Valley of the Christians there are no public hospitals; the closest ones are in Homs or Tartus, an hour or more away by car on account of the Army security controls. That is why the healthcare service offered by the Church in this region is greatly appreciated by those displaced by the war, who have few financial means.”
At the very core of suffering, praying for benefactors all over the world
Elías accompanied a delegation from the international Catholic pastoral charity and pontifical foundation Aid to the Church in Need (ACN), who visited some of the inpatients in the Mzeina Hospital. Their care is paid for by the Saint Peter’s aid centre with the financial support of ACN. “Thank you for coming to see us, Elias, and thanks also to your benefactors,” said Najwa Arabi, a middle-aged mother of a family who had just undergone surgery on her stomach. “We know that there are people in many countries around the world who are helping us. Every day we pray for them and give thanks to God,” she added.
On the next ward is Maryam Hourani, the mother of Janadios, a little boy barely more than a year old who is recovering from bronchiolitis. “He was very ill and could hardly breathe when we brought him to the hospital,” she explains.
“We contacted Elias and he assured us that the Saint Peter’s Centre would pay his costs. I can only say thank you.” Equally grateful is a young woman by the name of Shasha Khoury, who is recovering from surgery for a breast tumour. “I’m five months pregnant,” she says. “It is a boy and he’s going to be called Fayez, which means ‘winner,” she smiles.
Dr Abboud, who is an ear nose and throat specialist, explains that some of the operations they perform are free and that they have a special program for children and young people with hearing problems. “Many of these cases are caused by bombs and other explosions during the war,” he explains, adding that the biggest difficulties they face are the lack of infrastructure, obtaining new medical equipment with which they can operate better, and the constant power cuts. “Although in this last year we have managed to obtain medicines which until recently it was impossible to find in Syria,” he concedes.
As we leave the hospital, Elías and Toni say goodbye with a big hug. Both men are very heavy built and look almost like brothers. “Whenever a difficult case crops up in the hospital, with a patient who has very little money, we always try to help by giving a discount and extending the payment period. When such cases occur, we call the Saint Peter’s centre, knowing that Elias there or Father Walid, the parish priest of Saint Peter’s Church, will always respond to our requests,” Toni tells us. The presence of the Church and its work on behalf of the displaced by the war and the local poor is quite literally saving many lives.
The pontifical charity Aid to the Church in Need sends around $75,000 each month to the Saint Peter’s Aid Centre in Marmarita, a large part of which is to cover the cost of essential medicines and the medical care of over 4,000 individuals. “We continue to need your aid. You are the hope of all these people, and a wonderful example for our society,” says Dr Abboud, as he bids us farewell.