Minnesota volunteers offer medical help to Syrian refugees

Published 8:03 am Monday, August 27, 2018

ROCHESTER— The video may be grainy, but it’s clear the infant lying on a gurney is struggling to breathe. The baby, identified as “Azzam,” had been brought to a refugee camp in Lebanon for displaced Syrians. The child’s family said they were turned away from an area hospital because they didn’t have money to pay for treatment.

Ingrid Johansen, a Minnesota registered nurse and volunteer with the Syrian American Medical Society, assessed the 6-month-old.

“He’s had a fever for several days, he’s hypoxic, labored breathing, lethargic — needs oxygen, hospital admission,” Johansen says in the video, shot by freelance journalist Farrah Fazal.

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Johansen was one of 10 Minnesota residents who spent a week volunteering their skills at refugee camps near the Syrian border in April. In that week, 34 SAMS volunteers from nine countries treated more than 800 people. They provided treatment ranging from pediatric checkups to emergency care.

Volunteers did what they could to treat the child and then raised funds to pay for the infant’s admission to an area hospital, the Post-Bulletin reported.

SAMS was founded in the 1990s as a networking organization for Syrian-national medical professionals. Today, the organization is a leading medical relief agency providing aid in rebel-held areas of war-torn Syria and at refugee camps for displaced Syrians.

“That baby likely would have died,” said Lindsey Smith, a registered nurse who helped found the Minnesota chapter of SAMS.

Azzam was one of the more dramatic SAMS encounters, but it wasn’t the only one that changed the lives of both families and volunteers, Smith said.

“I don’t think we’ll ever fully know the impact we have,” Smith said.

Smith and some of her Minnesota-chapter SAMS colleagues will soon be in Rochester at Pasquale’s Neighborhood Pizzeria to share some of their stories. While the primary purpose of the event is to show people in Rochester what their colleagues and neighbors have done to help, Smith said she hopes it generates support for SAMS.

“Many children are so malnourished, you can’t tell their ages,” Smith said.

They’ll also hear about the conditions under which the medical professionals worked.