By Claudia Blume
On Dr. Rogy Masri’s last day in Lebanon, staff in four Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) clinics in Tripoli ate cakes that had been decorated with an edible photo of his smiling, bearded face to bid him farewell — a testimony to the Toronto-based physician’s popularity with local colleagues. “They knew I have a really sweet tooth,” Dr. Masri chuckles. “I ate a lot of cake during my six-month assignment.”
Dr. Masri’s first posting with MSF was in a country he knows well. His parents had left Lebanon in the 1970s to move to Canada, where he was born, and he had been back to visit family several times over the years. This was the first time he returned to the country in 22 years, however, and he admits that his Arabic was a bit rusty at first.
Treating life-threatening conditions
MSF runs four clinics in Tripoli and surroundings, mainly for Syrian refugees but also for the local Lebanese population. Dr. Masri mainly focused on chronic diseases such as diabetes, high blood pressure and asthma, common diseases for people from middle-income countries such as Syria.
Most of the Syrian refugees he treated live in desolate conditions — either in abandoned houses and garages in Tripoli, or informal tent settlements outside the city. Because aid organizations have had their funding cut, many refugees no longer have access to free education, and no longer receive donations of food, water or hygiene products. “When the focus shifted to the refugee crisis in Europe, and how it impacts the West, the money for refugees in Lebanon disappeared,” says Masri.
Instead of talking about their diabetes, they would talk about how their son was killed last week, and how their other son went back to Syria to earn money so that they could survive in Lebanon. You have to overcome those issues first before you can care about your health
He was surprised that many patients with life-threatening conditions that could only be treated overseas refused to leave. “They would rather suffer and die in Lebanon and be close to their family in Syria than go to another country”, he says. ”I had a 12-year-old patient who urgently needed an operation and was offered free treatment and asylum in Australia, accompanied by his whole family, but they said no.”
Dr. Masri feels that being of Lebanese descent and speaking Arabic was a definite advantage. Without a language or cultural barrier, his Syrian patients felt more at ease. “Refugees are different from other patients because they have gone through so much before they even get to a clinic. There is inherent mistrust, scepticism and fear. They need to be validated.”
He soon realized that many patients were less interested in talking about their health issues than about what was going on in their lives. “Instead of talking about their diabetes, they would talk about how their son was killed last week, and how their other son went back to Syria to earn money so that they could survive in Lebanon. You have to overcome those issues first before you can care about your health.”
He says that many of his patients were in such a dire psychological state that they did not even see the point of taking medication. “Some of them said: It’s better if I die.”
Masri says that while it’s important to address the physical health of refugees, the mental health issues he witnessed in Lebanon were overwhelming.