After Witnessing the Horrors of War in Syria, Tarek Turk Looks Ahead to New Beginnings at the University of Alberta

It began on March 15, 2011.

01 June 2019

It began on March 15, 2011.

Tarek Turk cites the date precisely and without a moment's pause, in the same way a parent instantly remembers the painful details around the death of a child.

Like most students his age, he was focused at the time on completing his high school exams and preparing for university. The future looked bright.

But destiny placed Turk in the wrong place at the worst possible time - in Damascus, Syria, just as one of the bloodiest conflicts in modern history was about to start.

"I was 19 and I was just finishing high school. That's when it started to break out all over Syria. We thought in just a couple of months it would be over. Then we thought the longest it would go on would be a year. And then, maybe until the end of 2012," he says.

"But it kept escalating. Then it turned into a war, and a humanitarian crisis. It just kept going, and we're now in the eighth year of the crisis. Not even in our worst nightmares did we imagine it would be this way."

In a nation of barely 21 million people, more than 400,000 Syrians died, some six million were displaced internally, and five million sought refuge in countries abroad, according to official estimates.

"We have seen things no one at our age - or at any age - should see," says Turk, now 26. "We see life differently now. We value things very differently. We have learned the hard way how to work, how to perform in any setting, and how to use the resources around us, no matter how scarce they are."

Amazingly, Turk, his parents and his sisters survived the bloodshed, and he went on to complete his medical degree at Damascus University in late 2017, even as fighting continued to rage around him.

"I lost a couple of friends and an uncle. Many other friends fled the country. But I was lucky. I didn't lose my mom, my dad, a brother or a sister. I was very fortunate. Some families are just completely gone," he says.

"We had a house and an apartment in Damascus, so we moved to the apartment because it's downtown, where it's relatively safer. The house was in the suburbs and it was completely destroyed. But now the frequency of the attacks is far less and peace is slowly coming back to most areas. So we feel very fortunate."

Since he graduated from medical school, Turk has worked in various roles as an advisor and researcher with the World Health Organization (WHO), in Geneva, Switzerland, where he has focused on areas such as sexual and reproductive health and rights.

He is also a Research Assistant with the National Leishmaniasis Centre in Damascus, which is investigating the effectiveness of a DNA-based vaccine for Leshmaniasis, a parasitic disease spread by infected sandflies that causes skin ulcers and other serious disfigurations.

"The flies and the parasite seem to be growing stronger. Since I started working in Dermatology I see those cases clinically, and it's getting worse, it's getting more aggressive. Sometimes we'll see half of a patient's face eaten by the parasite, so it's really nasty."

Turk became a Resident in the Dermatology and Venereology Department at the Syrian Arab Red Crescent Hospital, in Damascus, last July. And this spring, he enrolled as a Master's student in the Graduate Program in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Alberta.

Turk's uncle, Dr. Samer Aldandashi - an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Psychiatry and a staff member at the Royal Alexandra Hospital - helped to facilitate his nephew's move to Edmonton.

"There is still a lot of paperwork to do. I'm still processing everything and going through the process of registration. I'm attending Grand Rounds and getting used to the transportation system. Life is very different here, of course. But it's a 'nice' different, a 'good' different," he says.

"I'm very happy that I'm here, and I have very high hopes. This is an opportunity I was fortunate to get. Many Syrians dream of such an opportunity. I'm the lucky one, and I will definitely make the best of it and give back to people as much as I can."

Although he hasn't yet formally decided on the focus of his Master's research, Turk says he's particularly interested in exploring the psychodermatological aspects of Dermatology - in other words, dermatological diseases that have some psychological basis.

"Stress can cause or exaggerate a skin disease. Also, skin diseases tend to cause significant stress for patients. Some people just get into a vicious cycle and definitely need help," he explains.

"Another area I'm interested in is mental health on a global level, especially since I've spent some time at the WHO and I'm continuing to work with them now. So I'm hoping to explore global mental health, particularly in the area of digital psychiatry or digital healthcare."

On that front, Turk is currently involved in a project in Syria to enable patients to get access to psychiatric services online.

"Many people still can't go and see a psychiatrist without being stigmatized. Also, because some people still cannot get to the healthcare centres -
although the situation in Syria is way better now - it might be helpful for people to have access to such a platform, even to get a primary consult, diagnosis and treatment. So I'm trying to explore opportunities for telepsychiatry and digital health."

Although treating patients in a war zone was often horrific, gut-wrenching, challenging and stressful, Turk says it also gave him and his colleagues valuable experience in developing real-world coping skills in extremely demanding circumstances.

"People might think we didn't get any kind of medical education at all, but we did. It was not the best, and we had many challenges to overcome. But we were also exposed to different types of cases and circumstances which actually gave us skills that no other medical students in the world would get in a normal setting," he says.

"During my ER rotation the ERs became a hectic war setting. When there is an explosion or a major shooting incident you get used to performing under pressure. You have to think like you're part of a team, because we were always short-handed. But we always managed to help people, despite all this."

While Turk says he remains strong and healthy psychologically, despite the traumatic events he witnessed, others weren't so lucky.

"Some doctors and healthcare professionals broke down many times, sometimes while performing. I wish the Syrian population didn't have to go through all this. Hopefully we'll use this experience and learn from it," he says.

"But I know this is not the last crisis. Humans do stupid things, over and over again. They never learn from their mistakes."