Refugee medic shares epic Syrian odyssey
One day he was studying to be a doctor, the next he was fleeing a war zone, Tirej Brimo tells Robinson College audience
“As the great river of development surges on it washes up those it leaves behind on the banks,” said Sir Eldryd Parry at the inaugural East of England Global Health Conference.
The occasion was an opportunity for organiser Cambridge Global Health Partnerships (formerly Addenbrooke’s Abroad) to further its remit to connect academia and clinical practice: Robinson College provided the venue. As Sir Eldryd said, the city has a world-class healthcare provision sector developing solutions which are applied in all manner of situations around the globe. How things can be improved for everyone from researchers to front-line workers in NGOs was the theme of the day’s presentations and panels.
On stage that evening, sitting next to Sir Eldryd, was someone who became a refugee to continue his study of medicine. Tirej Brimo’s speech was called “My life in a bag” and beside him was the bag he used for his worldly belongings when he left his native Syria in 2012 – 10 months before graduating as a doctor – for a journey that took him to Lebanon, then Egypt, then the UK.
Of his life as a refugee he said: “I felt like an empty can thrown on the side of life’s highway.” In the UK he was rejected by 31 universities before getting a place at St George’s University of London: he is now a junior doctor in Royal Stoke University Hospital, having graduated last August. Though his entire perspective on life changed forever through his experiences, the chrysalis of darkness also brought a butterfly moment.
“The moment I accepted my losses was the most liberating, self-empowering moment of my life,” he said. “I was a free soul again.”
Tirej’s story is inspiring because it suggests a blueprint of how someone from a war zone can arrive in the UK and be contributing to our healthcare system with the minimum of fuss. But there is more.
“What many thought was a happy ending for my journey, for me is just the start. Here I am, a proud doctor working humbly for the NHS. I am grateful to my family, to my friends, to the NHS, and to all the beautiful souls who looked into my eyes and said: ‘I feel your pain’. In the UK, I felt looked after, and now, with my degree, it’s my turn to look after others. It feels like a whole cycle of good has started in my life.”
Tirej shows a video interview with his friend Baha, who is working as a doctor in Syria today. We hear Baha say: “We are working under enormous pressure but, in spite of everything, in spite of all the war tragedies, we still have hope.”
Tirej recounts a more recent experience of voluntary work on the Greek island of Lesvos, where 5,000 refugees live perilously close to Turkey in Moria camp.
“Unfortunately it’s a glimpse of hell… It felt like an extension of Syria. Sadly, the crisis doesn’t simply end when you cross the borders of war zones.”
He shows the audience a photo of some smiling children at a refugee camp.
“If you truly want to rebuild Syria, you need to invest in these smiles.
“For many children I know the only toy they play with is that old rotten tank at the end of that old destroyed street. The only education they receive is death education – what to do when a bomb penetrates the blue skies, what to do when your tent gets broken and it starts raining indoors, what to do when your little sibling starts crying and you are too hungry to play with them…
“To those suffering in silence, I know that no words can describe the atrocities you’ve been through. Love and only love will one day heal all the broken hearts. Ladies and gentlemen, let’s all spread love, let’s all be healers.”
The next day I meet Tirej, who is one of Medscape’s physicians of the year for 2017, for coffee. I asked him if it had been emotional for him to be at the conference on the day we heard of the passing of Prof Hawking.
“I am saddened by the death of the great scientist Stephen Hawking,” he says. “He was a role model for many people like myself even when I was in Syria. He proved to us that regardless of what life chooses for you, you can always dream and be that person of your dreams. He challenged limitations in every single possible way. His life is so inspiring and empowering.”
He is gratified by the response he received the previous evening.
“It was a great privilege to speak at the first East of England Global Health Conference,” he says. “It’s a great platform to share ideas and network with physicians who are involved in international health projects. I met some great health workers, researchers, academics and doctors from Cambridge’s Global Health Partnership who are involved in various projects in developing countries. It was an inspiration.”
Tirej is from Afrin, in the north-east of Syria, and spent most of his youth in Aleppo, 35 miles south. He left Syria at the end of July 2012 with his mother Amina and his older sister Berbang. They took a bus to Lebanon and then became separated. Incredibly, they all met up in the UK because the eldest brother, Peshang, was already in the UK working as a doctor. Berbang is now a junior doctor in obstetrics and gynaecology in London. Amina is studying politics and international relations at SOAS University of London.
Sometimes the process of formulating an answer to a question provokes a soul-searching process. Tirej walked through and around one set of obstacles and dangers and now he faces another challenge – to tell his story without bringing politics into it. He loves his freedom and doesn’t want to be put in a box – of any sort.
“The moment you choose a side, you can miss the reality of all these people suffering in between the different sides,” he says. “I belong to humanity and human hardship, and that is who I am.
“I feel heartbroken for what is happening in Syria. Today my home town Afrin is under fire from bullets to bombs. Lives are lost on a daily basis. Truly Afrin is in pain and so am I. Sadly, that is the situation in many towns and cities in Syria. Sometimes I wonder to myself how many of us need to die for this war to end – how many children need to cry, how many families need to be devastated.”
He believes his life will always be geared towards helping others.
“My aim is to start a charity that connects volunteers and doctors to the right organisations that work on the ground in crisis zones.
“I have met so many beautiful souls who really want to help. I think connecting these people with the right organisations would be an amazing project to do.
“Everyone in life chooses a path and my path is about those suffering in silence,” he says.