Grace and grit

Dr. Rola Hallam: ‘We’re not just fighting the patriarchy, we’re doing it through bombs and bullets’

This doctor is not only treating the wounded on the front lines–she is one of 8 women shaking up the entire humanitarian aid system

Women in the Middle East are too often viewed through the narrow lens of oppression, says Doctor Rola Hallam–a British-Syrian doctor who has devoted herself to humanitarian work on the front lines of her homeland. Her own experience on the ground tells a different story, and at the Women in the World L.A. Salon on Tuesday night she appealed to the audience to change that perspective and consider instead the widows now running households, the “grandmothers who are carrying children over dead bodies to get them to safety, the doctors, the fearless journalists.

“We are not just fighting the patriarchy, we’re not just fighting prejudice, we’re doing it through bombs and bullets.”

In an inspiring conversation with Gayle Tzemach Lemmon of the Council on Foreign Relations, Hallam spoke of the almost 3 million people who remain trapped in a war, seven years on, that no longer captures the world’s attention. Hallam has herself lost 30 family members in the conflict. “This is state-sponsored mass murder and oppression–it is a war on civilians, not a civilian war,” Hallam said, in an effort to overcome any misunderstanding that might arise from referring to the long-running conflict as a “civil war.”

“As a result, civilians–children, doctors, nurses and everyone else–have been the ones paying the price,” she said, before recalling a devastating attack with an incendiary weapon on a playground, which cost the lives of ten young patients, only because she lacked the resources–rather than the skills–to treat them.

It’s not just schools. Medical workers are at particular risk, she added. “Physicians for Human Rights have documented over 400 attacks on hospitals and clinics. Over 800 of my colleagues have been killed–40 percent of them by torture. Ninety percent of these attacks have been by the Syrian regime, and the other 10 percent by other armed actors, and just since the beginning of this year, 20 hospitals have been bombed out of existence.”

“So this is a systematic obliteration of health care and using it as a weapon of war. Hospitals have become places where you go to die, not where you go to live.”

Frustrated, grieving and aware of the need for a more significant response, Hallam organized a people’s convoy of supplies in late 2017 to rebuild a children’s hospital which had been bombed six times. “I wanted to do something that could transform our collective anger into something meaningful,” she said. The People’s Convoy campaign was launched, to crowd-fund the rebuilding of an entire children’s hospital. Five thousand people from more than 10 countries raised $350,000 in just 12 days, and the equipment was taken from London via convoy to Syria. Three months later the hospital opened its doors. The hospital has already treated 15,000 children.

Hallam also came to realize how much of the work was being performed by local charities in Syria, but that this was not reflected in funding allocation. So, 18 months ago, she set up the world’s first crowd-funded humanitarian platform, Can Do, with seven other women around the world, to support localized responses to crises. The direct-outcome platform will mean resources will get to first responders on-the-ground, who are able to describe their particular needs as well as begin to rebuild their communities. The project aims to cut out the “red tape,” connecting donors more directly with local, trusted, impactful humanitarians. “If you give a shit and you want to help a fellow human being then you’re a humanitarian–you don’t need to work in the charity sector,” she said, urging support for the bold initiative.

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