Utah doctor pleads for U.S. to aid home country of Syria

Mar 11 2013 - 9:48am

Images

Dr. Mohammad Alsolaiman, 40, checks a patient’s records on a computer at the Central Utah Clinic in American Fork on March 4. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
Mohammad Alsolaiman sits with his children Abed (standing), 10, Omar (left), 4, and Raneem, 2, in Aleppo, Syria, in 2010. (Courtesy photo)
A former Free Syrian Army fighter sits on his bed in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Jan. 22. He was paralyzed after a piece of shrapnel was lodged in his lower back.  (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
Free Syrian Army fighters run from one building to another to avoid sniper fire on one of the front lines in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 17. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
A Free Syrian Army fighter stands at a checkpoint in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 17, 2013. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
Dr. Mohammad Alsolaiman, 40, checks a patient’s records on a computer at the Central Utah Clinic in American Fork on March 4. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
Mohammad Alsolaiman sits with his children Abed (standing), 10, Omar (left), 4, and Raneem, 2, in Aleppo, Syria, in 2010. (Courtesy photo)
A former Free Syrian Army fighter sits on his bed in Reyhanli, Turkey, on Jan. 22. He was paralyzed after a piece of shrapnel was lodged in his lower back.  (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
Free Syrian Army fighters run from one building to another to avoid sniper fire on one of the front lines in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 17. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)
A Free Syrian Army fighter stands at a checkpoint in Aleppo, Syria, on Jan. 17, 2013. (REYNALDO LEAL/Standard-Examiner)

Editor's Note: Standard-Examiner photojournalist Reynaldo Leal spent more than a month in Syria and Turkey on a freelance assignment. This is the second in an occasional series of stories based on his experiences.

Dr. Mohammad Alsolaiman walked into his office at the Central Utah Clinic in American Fork. He had been busy seeing patients and working at a local hospital for the past two days, getting little sleep.

But the growing bags under his eyes were more than just a product of long days and stressful work. The gastroenterologist was also thinking of his family and friends still living in Aleppo, Syria.

"They are on my mind every second of every day," he said. "It breaks your heart to see what they have to go through and what our home looks like now. I pray for them to be safe, and for help to come soon."

Waiting for help

A month earlier, and more than 6,700 miles away in Reyhanli, Turkey, a clinic run by American aid organizations was packed with the war injured. Some were rebel fighters, while others were civilian bystanders when the government opened fire on homes and protests. The patients and medical staff alike wondered out loud about the West's position on the revolution, and when they would send help.

A fighter, who refused to give his name out of fear of what the government would do to his family still in Syria, was propped up on his bed. He was paralyzed from the waist down when a piece of shrapnel cut through his spinal cord during a firefight. He was proud to be part of the revolution, but after a few minutes his fears about not being able to provide for his family came to light.

As he watched his only son jump on the hospital bed next to his, tears welled up in his eyes. Life would never be the same for him, and all revolutionary bravado aside, he knew it. He made one last plea as the interview ended: Tell President Barack Obama to send help.

$60 million, but not for guns

Secretary of State John Kerry announced Feb. 26 the U.S. would provide "non-lethal" assistance to the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

As word that the $60 million would go to food and medication instead of rifles and ammunition for the FSA, some questioned the new American strategy, including Syrians now living in the U.S.

"It is important that the American government helps the FSA and those who are now refugees in other countries," Alsolaiman, 40, said calmly. "The $60 million is a good start, but it is not enough to end the war quickly. The longer the fighting lasts, the more people will be lost."

Although he said he was grateful for President Obama's recognition of opposition forces as Syria's legitimate representatives and the millions promised by Kerry, Alsolaiman is convinced that more can be done to stem the violence against innocent civilians and ensure the fall of the Assad regime.

According to the doctor, a "no-fly zone" -- the same tactic used by the U.S. against Libya -- would also have a positive affect in Syria.

"We don't need America to send troops, like in Iraq or Afghanistan," he said. "But if they can at least enforce a no-fly zone, it would change the war quickly and save so many lives."

Before the revolution

Alsolaiman finished medical school in Aleppo and was a resident and doctor in Pennsylvania, New York and South Carolina before making Utah his home nine years ago.

Life in Syria before the revolution was stable, he said, but the presence of the government was everywhere. Any form of dissent was met swiftly with force.

"I could not even pray at my own mosque," Alsolaiman said. "I would have to go to different mosques around Aleppo, so that the government could not track me. If they thought I was going to pray too much, they would say, 'Oh, you are a terrorist.' That's how you would end up in prison or worse."

He remembers medical school colleagues and friends who were picked up by secret police and never heard from again. The government's firm grip on every aspect of life in Syria was one of the reasons he decided to emigrate.

Trying to help from afar

The husband and father of three is doing his part to help the revolution in his home country. He is active on social media websites and tries to inform as many people as possible about what is happening in Syria. He helps organizations that assist orphans and the injured with funds and medical supplies.

"I do what I can to help, but without help from countries like America, it will never be enough," he said.

U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, is concerned that funding from the U.S. will find its way to individuals linked to terrorist organizations, like Al-Qaida.

In a statement to the Standard-Examiner, Lee said a meeting with CENTCOM Commander Marine Gen. James Mattis last week confirmed his hesitation to aid the FSA in any way.

"We should do more to ensure Americans' tax dollars are not being used to fuel the armies of our enemies," Lee said, "even if they are fighting a government we also oppose."

Asked about concerns of potentially funding extremists who have joined the battle in Syria, Alsolaiman conceded that there were foreign fighters who had infiltrated the ranks of the opposition. However, he said he is certain that with the right oversight, the funding and weapons can get to the right people.

"Who is the FSA?" Alsolaiman asked. "The FSA is the people. If we don't help them now, and there is no money, weapons or hope for them, then they will go to the people that give them the opportunity to fight the regime. I'm afraid that if America does not help now, Syria will be in the hands of extremists."

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