NORTHAMPTON — The dimly lit solemnity of the First Churches of Northampton sanctuary rang with the sounds of oud and drum Sunday afternoon as Layaali Arabic Music Ensemble took the stage.
Between Layaali’s sets, Boston’s Dr. Abdulfatah Elshaar, president of the New England Chapter of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), and his daughter Ala’a Elshaar spoke about the organization’s efforts to bring medical care to war-ravaged Syria and to Syrian refugees outside the country’s borders. The event, dubbed “Songs for Syria” and produced by the Valley Syrian Relief Committee, saw the First Churches filled to near its capacity of 600.
Dr. Elshaar, who’s been in the U.S. since 1983, said in his remarks that Syrian doctors “risk their lives for saving Syrian lives.” He offered the example of a Syrian cardiologist he’d recently met who was leaving his hospital in Syria and was hit by a bomb. “He was in a coma for three months,” said Elshaar, “and then he woke up in Boston. He had no idea how he’d gotten there. He was thankful just to be able to walk and talk.”
To directly aid doctors in Syria, SAMS supplies doctors at 10 hospitals with training and equipment. SAMS programs usually take place at border towns in Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, where medical professionals can rendezvous with SAMS, then return to their homes in Syria. The ongoing civil war in Syria has, according to MercyCorps, displaced around 11 million Syrians.
Conditions within the country, Elshaar said, are so bad — hospitals are frequently bombed — that doctors are practicing in some unusual places. “There was a surgeon I met in Turkey last month who was unable to operate where he was. He moved and established a clinic on a chicken farm so it wouldn’t be bombed.”
Dr. Issam Khataya of Shrewsbury, another member of SAMS in attendance, said hospitals are also being set up in underground locations to avoid bombs. Khataya said that in addition to delivering equipment to Syrian hospitals, “We have field hospitals, mobile clinics, even vans that move from village to village. We also have mobile dialysis units and dental clinics.”
It’s an expensive undertaking — one of the organization’s trauma clinics, according to the SAMS website, costs $7,500 per month to maintain. Among its many facilities, SAMS runs 35 such clinics. Contributors can also sponsor doctors, supplying a salary of $600 per month.
Ala’a Elshaar, a researcher for the Veterans Affairs Boston Healthcare System, spoke about another aspect of the organization’s activities — helping refugee children who’ve lost one or both parents to the conflict in Syria. Many of them, she said, suffer from post-traumatic stress as well as the loss of a parent.
Elshaar has taken part in “social missions” to aid these children. Often, she said, simply listening to the children’s stories proved helpful.
In her remarks, she told the story of a little boy with issues of anger and aggression she met at an orphanage in Turkey. “He had lost his family, and he’d left his toys, his clothing, everything he had behind.”
Instead of creating a design with colored sand with the other kids, the boy kept throwing sand. One of the other volunteers, Elshaar said, followed the boy’s lead, also throwing handfuls of sand. “After a while, he said, ‘Is this helping you the way it’s helping me?’ ”
In an interview after the event, Elshaar added that the social missions — she has been on four so far — also include giving children things the orphanages often don’t have. “Some places are better equipped than others,” she said, “so we gave every child the supplies they’d need to go to school. We gave them each a backpack filled with supplies. We wanted to encourage them to go to school.
We gave them puzzles, crayons, chalk — things to keep them busy, too.”
Even though the missions take place outside of Syria, Elshaar said, “Volunteers’ safety is not guaranteed. But you do it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Between the music and remarks at Songs for Syria, the capacity crowd was asked to offer donations, all of which would go to SAMS, with the incentive that an anonymous supporter had pledged to match the first $5,000 raised.
In the crowd was Anne Rosen, 72, of Florence. She said she attended because “of all the horrible crises in the world right now, this seems like the one where we can actually make a difference and not just feel depressed.”
Also in attendance was Mohammed Najeeb, 39, of Westfield, an Iraqi who immigrated to the U.S. in 2009. He came to connect with SAMS and the Valley Syrian Relief Committee as part of his own work with refugees. Najeeb works for Ascentria Care Alliance, an organization that helps with the settlement of new immigrants. The refugees he has helped have come from many places, and Najeeb said, “In the Hampden County area, we’ve got about 20 individuals from Syria we’ve helped. It’s the welcoming communities here that make our job achievable.”
The large and enthusiastic crowd echoed that sentiment, as did Rosen’s remarks. She put it simply: “Northampton — it’s very good at things like this.”