21 August 2020 marked the seventh anniversary of the horrifying 2013 chemical attack by the Syrian government against civilians in Eastern Ghouta, which killed an estimated 1,500 people and affected an estimated 3,600.
To acknowledge this tragic anniversary, the Syria Research Group (SyRG) hosted a film screening of ‘The Cave’. This 2019 Syrian-Danish documentary, nominated for an Oscar, tells the harrowing true story of an underground field hospital and its extraordinary staff in Eastern Ghouta, Syria. It follows a dedicated team of doctors and health staff, led by Dr Amani Ballour. Dr Ballour, one of the only women hospital managers in Syria, worked tirelessly with her team to treat casualties in her hospital while battling systematic sexism.
The screening was followed by a one-minute silence to honour the dead and then a panel discussion. We at SyRG were honoured to have Dr Ballour attend as our main speaker, along with Associate Professor Natasha Howard and Dr Aula Abbara.
The discussion started with Dr Ballour’s reflections about her role as hospital manager during the Syrian government’s bombardment and blockade, and the challenges that faced her as a woman leading the health facility. She emphasized that one person can make a positive change, even in the most challenging circumstances; if they do everything they can while maintaining patience. As a woman field hospital manager, she was fighting patriarchal social norms while dealing with the exceptional circumstances of ongoing conflict at the same time. She linked this eloquently with the global Black Lives Matter movement, saying that big changes always need a brave first step no matter how small it is. Dr Ballour went on to describe the importance of continuing to advocate and adding more pressure on the international community to act, in seeking justice for the innocent civilians who died because of the Syrian conflict.
Dr Howard described the importance of conducting research in conflict-affected areas that is grounded in affected participants’ knowledge and realities, to document what is happening and co-develop potential mitigating strategies, while ensuring the voices of affected participants can reach wider audiences. She noted how SyRG are developing online participatory co-design approaches in our research projects to try to engage participants within Syria and the Syrian diaspora in all stages of research.
Dr Abbara’s remarks focused on ways to support ongoing medical education in conflict-affected areas, especially in Syria. She described how the loss of health professionals, the disruption and sometimes destruction of educational institutions, and the high demand for more and better-trained health professionals due to the ongoing conflict have imposed urgent needs to create new ways of providing medical training and support.
Dr Ballour mentioned that better medical education in places like Syria is the main goal of the Al-Amal charitable fund she has established. Questions from the audience were wide-ranging but focused particularly around ways to help relieve the suffering of the Syrian people as the conflict continues.
We at SyRG would like to thank the audience and all the panellists for their participation in this engaging and inspiring event. Please refer to our social media links below for future exciting events. Those who want to share the film and other outputs as part of their advocacy efforts to spread the word about what happened can do so through the links below.
For more information on the film: https://films.nationalgeographic.com/the-cave
For more information on Dr Ballour’s fund: https://www.kbfcanada.ca/en/projects/al-amal-hope-fund/
For more information on SyRG: https://scahr.org/
For more information on NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health: https://sph.nus.edu.sg/
For more information on London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine: https://www.lshtm.ac.uk/