I was making breakfast with my family the morning I got the call to say Air France had gone on strike and my flight that afternoon to Damascus was being rerouted. I was traveling to Syria with a small group connected with the United Nations Association of Seattle. Our purpose: interview Iraqi refugees, talk with Syrians about the impact of this massive increase to their non-working population and discuss the human effects of this troubling war. Waffles forgotten, it was a mad dash to the Spokane airport in order to get to Seattle for a standby flight and make the new and confounding connections. It was a bit of a rocky start, but nothing compared to our Palestinian friends and translators who regularly endure hours standing in lines and innumerable difficulties at various borders just to travel within the Middle East.
The journey began the moment I decided to make the trip to Syria. Apprehension set in for my family and myself as I would be traveling to a foreign country with war tearing at its borders from without and domestic tensions rising from within. Among other things, I am a physician, wife and a mother of two active-minded teenage children. It was my children’s out-spoken questions and opinions that forced me to be honest about my reasons for going on this venture. “If practicing medicine isn’t your primary intention, then what will you do there?” they asked. The easy answer for my husband and kids was that I was hoping to take the opportunity to overcome a media-driven understanding of a culture essentially unknown to me and to explore the true circumstances of suffering the Iraqi people have endured. Twenty years as an emergency room physician helped shape my deeper answer to my family. I was going to Syria because the human circumstance intrigues me and people never fail to surprise me. Humans are so amazing; at the same time wonderful and awful, resilient and weak, clever and stupid, courageous and scared out of their minds. I never want to become complacent or feel like I’ve seen it all. That was why I was going. To engage all my senses in the bigger world with a deep fidelity to protect the well being of the entire person, both physical and spiritual. On this trip I would hear Iraqi stories of human despair and share in that brokenness simply by caring and being fully present.
We arrived in Damascus where we spent time at the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) office meeting with officials regarding the refugee crisis, learning more about the huge complexities and issues impacting Syria. The officials we met were hard working, articulate, well-informed and concerned. The Syrians, they told us, have kept wide-open borders to Iraqi refugees up until the end of 2007. In November 2007, there were approximately 1.5 million Iraqi refugees in Syria. The majority of them, perhaps seventy percent, are housed in Damascus. They include Sunnis, Shias, and Christians. They fled Iraq because of a variety of difficulties including threats to their lives, kidnappings, killings, poor food and water supplies, and diseases. It seemed there were no groups of people who were not at risk. The burden to Syria has been great and visa restrictions have been imposed making it more difficult for this displaced population of mostly educated people to stay in Syria as they are unable to work there.Karlene Arguinchona - An emergency room physician at Sacred Heart hospital in Spokane for the past twenty years, Karlene serves on the board of the Krista Foundation. As the granddaughter of a physician who served with Mother Teresa in India for many years, she values opportunities to utilize her medical training and skills to volunteer overseas in Central America, the Middle East, and Africa.