Dr. Tarif Bakdash is a doctor in exile, a Syrian who went to school with President Bashar al-Assad, who received much of his education in the U.S., then returned to Syria because he believed his former schoolmate would lift the country out of its corrupt past. Bakdash got to know Asma al-Assad, the Syrian first lady, and was appointed Secretary General for the Disabled. But he became disenchanted and left his homeland before the Arab Spring uprisings.
Now he can’t go back. He emailed the first lady asking her to prevail on her husband to exercise mercy toward anti-govt protesters. He emailed President Obama urging him to oppose Syrian government’s war on its own people. He wrote a memoir highly critical of Syria’s president.
“If I return they will kill me,” Bakdash says, “after they torture me for sure.”
He is, in many ways, a child of the Middle East; his mother was maimed by a letter bomb when he was 7. Today he suffers watching his homeland suffer. He Skypes with a doctor running a mental health clinic inside Syria. He talks with patients 6,000 miles away, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. He diagnoses them under difficult conditions. And he agonizes that he is not doing more.
That's why he is flying to Jordan, to help refugees at Jordan's enormous al Zaatari camp. He is a member of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS). Some of the group’s doctors have slipped into Syria through Turkey as many as a dozen times at great personal risk to work in hospitals inside Syria.
The medical system in Syria has been devastated, with doctors killed and hospitals bombed into rubble. It is so bad that SAMS is operating some hospitals underground. It is so bad that second-year medical students in Syria are performing surgeries nine years before they have completed the necessary training. They lead these procedures using cell phones and Skype to consult doctors in America.
Through the journey of Dr. Bakdash, journalist Mark Johnson and photographer Mark Hoffman tell the story of an unfolding medical crisis and the men and women who are responding to it.