Op-Ed: Physician Mom’s Experience at the Syrian Border

Op-Ed: Physician mom’s experience at the Syrian border

Cherry Hill native Dr. Shweta Iyer discusses her recent trip to Lebanon to work with Syrian refugees children near the border of the two nations.

Editor’s note: This story was submitted to The Sun by Cherry Hill Native Dr. Shweta Iyer

Dearest Anvi,

You have given me the most challenging job — that of being a mother. One day when you are old enough to read and understand, I want you to have this letter.

“How could you leave your child behind? How could you take that risk?”

When I talk about my recent mission in Lebanon, these are the most common questions I hear from fellow parents. The questions are always centered around my decision to leave my baby at home to go…there.

I traveled to Lebanon to work with Syrian refugee children at camps near the border. After reading the news and feeling helpless about the trauma children were suffering from in the war-torn country, I felt a calling to provide aid in whatever form I could. I remember feeling apprehensive as I packed up various medical supplies. Perhaps the real apprehension stemmed from the fact that I didn’t know what emotions I would feel once there.

The most difficult encounter I experienced happened soon after my arrival. A mother and father walked in with sick looking son. After some back and forth translations, I understood that he had recently been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of brain cancer. His parents came not to learn more about the diagnosis or treatment, but to beg for hospice care. They had been receiving care in Syria, but since escaping to Northern Lebanon, they were unable to afford the expenses. His parents came to us full of hope, despite the bleakness of the situation. “Khadhih maeak ‘iilaa America” (translation: take him with you to America), the mother begged me repeatedly. With my few resources and limited local knowledge, I began to feel utterly helpless. When you have been trained to do all you can for your patient, it is nearly impossible to settle for much less. I offered whatever help I could at the moment, but I couldn’t deny my feelings of hopelessness.

Despite the hardships these refugee families faced, one commonality rose above all — these parents were breaking walls to help their children. As I sat with my team that evening, collectively shedding tears for families we could not help enough, I felt conviction in my mission here. Leaving my baby behind was not easy, and there was some inherent risk involved in travel to the border — but this was my duty to fulfill. These parents’ hope and resilience despite their situation had profoundly inspired me, and I felt empowered to do my part to help.

Going on this trip has made me both a better doctor and a better mother. I have learned about the difficulties in giving up everything familiar and known for your child, with the hopes of providing a better life. I have gained perspective on mothering in a place where the odds are stacked against you, and truly understand the meaning of the word ‘sacrifice.’

And you will grow up hearing about these experiences, and understanding what it means to help those in need despite the barriers and possible objections. You will appreciate how your parents supported each other to make a difference. I know you will make an impact, just as I hope I have.

For now, I am planning my next mission for 2019. There is still so much work to do.



A Cherry Hill native, Shweta Iyer is a pediatric emergency medicine physician at NYU Langone Health.