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Calvin James says he wishes he knew the girl’s name.
The Dublin-based DJ remembers her father running into the small medical facility in northern Syria, cradling the limp body of his young daughter.
A dentist, stepping in as a doctor, administered mouth-to-mouth. James, a first-aider acting as a nurse, pressed down on the little girl’s chest with his thumbs.
He remembers concentrating on the chest compressions: enough force to make a difference, not enough to break the child’s delicate rib cage.
He remembers how his thumbs grew sore and tired, but he wanted them to keep going – and they did. Again and again, until finally, the medical team could only wrap the child’s body in a white blanket and hand her back to her father.
Somebody offered her father a lift, and she was gone. James says they went straight back to work, afterwards. There were other patients to attend.
But he remembers, later that evening, when the facility was quieter, his colleague turned to him. “I’m sad about that little girl,” he said to James.
It seems a long way from Accents Cafe on Stephen Street in central Dublin, where James is sat on a recent Friday. He talks about why he went to the war zone, and why he’s launching a new campaign this weekend.
Originally from Blanchardstown, James has spent the last six months volunteering with the Kurdish Red Crescent, or Heyva Sor Kurd, in the Kurdish-controlled part of Northern Syria, in an area called Rojava, he says.
But he isn’t a medical professional, he says. “Most of the doctors I was working with, they weren’t actually doctors, they were dentists or pharmacists acting up as doctors, but they all had a lot of experience and knew what they were doing.”
Before he headed out, he had worked in social care in Ireland, and co-founded an NGO called the SCOOP Foundation, which builds schools and orphanages in Cambodia and India.
He had been to Syria before and travelled through Iraqi Kurdistan several times. So when he saw the pictures of the war on TV it really hit home, he said. He learnt some basic Kurdish and headed to northern Syria to work as a medic.
In Syria, James filled the role of a quasi-nurse, after training with the Kurdish Red Crescent. He helped those working as “doctors” to treat patients injured in bombing, he says. He also at times drove an ambulance around Qamlisho, the city where he was based.
Should We All Go?
James is quick to point out that volunteering in a war zone is not for everybody.
“It’s very difficult to get into the country, the borders are closed. There are a few organisations that could facilitate that, but they would only be interested in doctors and nurses, people who are definitely skilled,” he said.
Medical personnel are in high demand in Syria, so if nurses or doctors want to go to the Kurdish-controlled territory in the north they should contact James, he says.
That’s the question UCD philosophy lecturer Christopher Cowley says he would ask himself if somebody told him they were going to volunteer in Syria: what skills are they bringing?
Most Irish people probably do not fully understand the complexities of the country at the moment, he said. There “is a risk you could do more harm than good”, he said.
As Cowley sees it, there is a moral duty on governments to act, but not the individual, as they would not be able to solve the problems there.
His colleague, UCD philosophy professor Rowland Stout, says it is virtuous to go to help in a war zone, but it is not a moral duty to do so.
“You can argue that it is nobody’s duty to risk their life by going to help in Syria,” he says. “If it were my duty it would also be my duty to go to every war zone. Since this is impossible, it can’t be my duty.”
It is logical that it would be physically impossible to go to every war zone to help so therefore it cannot be a moral duty to do so.
Cowley says: “The only people who have this duty are those whose sphere of responsibility includes helping people in Syria – those people who have a special relationship with the problems there.”
There are acts, though, that are “supererogation”, though, he said. Cases where people take on a responsibility that is not their own, similar to acts of generosity.
“It is part of everyone’s humanity to break out of their roles sometimes and adopt new roles that they have absolutely no need to do. It is an aspect of human virtue to do so,” he said.
Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is sending in far fewer workers than they usually would in a conflict situation.
“The Syria crisis is unlike any conflict that we’ve worked in for over 25 years and is extremely complex – so sending out many international staff isn’t currently an option to us,” said Donal Gorman, communications manager for MSF Ireland.
There’s the fear that ISIS will kidnap foreign workers and the Syrian government has outlawed medical aid in the areas it controls, he said.
“Instead we have to operate in a different way and innovate our response and put a lot of resources into supporting Syrian hospitals and staff on the ground (…) along with the medical facilities we run in northern Syria,” he said.
“I really wouldn’t encourage anyone to travel to Syria or any other conflicted affected region, without first applying to, being accepted by and training with an organisation that has high levels of operational on the ground experience in war zones,” said Gorman.
As James sees it, the best way to help people in Syria is to volunteer locally or organise a fundraiser for an existing charity.
He is looking for people to organise fundraising events for his Syrias Vibes Campaign, which launches on Friday, he said. “This campaign is asking people to host a music event for us to raise money for Syria.”
Razan Ibraheem agrees – and says local Syrian charities are the best places to donate to.
“It’s important to donate to local organisations working in Syria as they have more knowledge of what people need, especially projects related to education and schools,” says Ibraheem, who is a Syrian citizen living in Ireland.
“Educating a child means saving him or her and building their future,” she says.
Ibraheem also recommends that people who want to help Syrians directly go and volunteer with refugees in Greece, which she herself does regularly. It is safe, hands-on, and helpful, she says.
Raising awareness and speaking up for refugees also helps, she says.
Responding to Crisis
When James was in Syria, he slipped into autopilot and just got on with what needed to be done, he said.
“When you are there you are not in a position to be helpless, it’s a different situation. I think I handled myself well. I responded to crisis well, had I just been a bystander sitting there watching what was happening I would have gone crazy,” he said.
He has dreams of the sounds of bombing that take him back to Syria, but he is not wracked with nightmares, he says. Instead, he feels guilt.
A worried look crosses his face. “It’s only now that I’m back in Ireland that it’s starting to sink in, I’m kind of feeling guilty being back here. When I’m watching my team over there working I’m annoyed that I’m not there,” he says.
“But the fact that I’m doing my Syrias Vibes Campaign, I’m in a position now that I can do more for the situation here than I can over there.”
Money goes so much further in Syria than it would here, he says. A doctor’s salary for the month there is $100.
“We’re bigger than a drop in the ocean now. We are in a position to make a real impact on the delivery of healthcare in northern Syria,” he says.
James is running the Syria Vibes Campaign through the SCOOP Foundation, and the money will go to local schools and towards medical equipment, he says.
Their first gig is Friday 7 October at the Grand Social on Lower Liffey Street. James, who is also a DJ, will be performing, along with a nine-piece ska band and a host of other bands and DJs. The cover charge is €10.