CHICAGO – Three Muslim doctors were named Chicagoans of the year in Chicago magazine’s December issue as part of inspirational stories, after they dared a deadly war in Syria to support people of Aleppo.
“Before I left, I wrote letters to my loved ones, because it might have been a one-way trip,” Samer Attar, an orthopedic surgeon with Northwestern Medicine, told Chicago Magazine on Monday, November 14.
“Just in case I was killed.”
Attar, Sahloul, and John Kahler, a pediatrician with Access Community Health Network, travelled to Syria to find Aleppo city reduced to rubble after Syria’s nearly six-year-long civil war.
The only way in was the deadly Castello Road, a two-lane highway littered with rotting corpses, bomb craters, and the smoldering remains of cars.
“The road to hell,” remembers Zaher Sahloul, a critical care specialist at Advocate Christ Medical Center in Oak Lawn.
“There’s a saying in Syria that if you kill a doctor, it’s as good as killing 100 soldiers, because you are killing all the future patients that the doctor can treat.”
The three doctors reported to the only remaining hospital in Aleppo, code name M10, which operated in secret. It was one of the Russian-backed Syrian government’s primary targets.
“There’s a saying in Syria that if you kill a doctor, it’s as good as killing 100 soldiers, because you are killing all the future patients that the doctor can treat and you’re taking away hope from a community,” says Attar.
Attar stayed for two weeks, and Sahloul and Kahler each stayed for four days, the maximum time they could take off from their jobs in Chicago.
Working in the basement to minimize dangers posed by bombings, they treated civilians injured by sniper fire and bombs but also those with mundane yet still critical needs—a diabetic who required insulin, for example.
“Every few minutes you’d hear an explosion, and the physicians would tell you what kind of ordnance it was,” recalls Kahler.
“Or they’d say, ‘Move away from there, that’s where the snipers are shooting.’ ”
Since the war began, Sahloul has been on 14 medical missions in Syria, and Attar has been on three. This was Kahler’s first trip to Syria, though he’s been part of aid operations elsewhere.
Castello Road is closed now, and no international aid has entered Aleppo since July.
If and when there’s a route into the city, the doctors say, they will return. “I’d go tomorrow if I could,” said Kahler.