Wallowa County recognizes Day of Peace

September 23, 2013 10:47 am

Dr. Steve Rubin talks about his work with Doctors Without Borders in war-torn Syria 

When Steve Rubin left the country a few months ago he told most people he was going to southeast Turkey to do surgical work. In reality, he was on his way to Syria.

Rubin said he started working with Doctors Without Borders, or Medecins Sans Frontieres, after deciding to do global health care while he was still young enough to work and travel around the world.

In 2007 Rubin accepted his first assignment to Sri Lanka. While he was gone his wife moved the family home from Tualatin to Wallowa County. He joined her when he returned.

Rubin credited his wife Angie and the community for his ability to handle these missions. “I have a protector in my wife. When I return she knows where I am mentally; she handles all the phone calls and I couldn’t do it
without being in Wallowa County,” he said.

Doctors Without Borders was started in 1971 and is a nongovernmental organization that provides emergency medical assistance to people affected by war, epidemics, natural and manmade disasters, or exclusion from health care in nearly 70 countries.

According to its website, some 30,000 health care and administrative professionals, representing dozens of nationalities, assist people in crises.

Doctors without Borders provides essential health care, rehabilitates and runs hospitals and clinics, performs surgery, conducts vaccination campaigns, operates feeding centers and offers mental health care. When needed, it constructs wells, dispenses drinking water and provides shelter materials such as blankets and plastic sheeting.

Most dangerous

Rubin said visiting war-torn countries may seem “sexy.” At present, Syria is arguably the most dangerous country in the world. In August, the United Nations claimed that 100,000 people have been killed in the 2.5-year conflict and 2 million have been displaced. Ninety-seven percent are in neighboring countries — Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey. Almost 5,000 Syrians flee into these countries every day. Rubin said more than 400,000 are in Turkey. 

In addition to the Syrians who have found refuge in Turkey, the country has also accepted patient referrals from the Syrian Doctors Without Borders hospital.

“They are feeling the strain, but they meet them at the border and take them into their hospitals. What you’ve heard about the Turkish government and how they handle the Syrians ain’t so,” Rubin said.

In Lebanon, where there are 716,000 refugees, Rubin said Doctors Without Borders is negotiating with the country to be able to take care of the refugees in its camps.

The costs are phenomenal. Doctors Without Borders alone spends $60 million a year in Syria, Rubin said, a country that he said is greatly misunderstood.

“Syria is not a third world country; its people are well educated. It has high quality health care and hospitals and patients are used to that, but war changed that,” Rubin said.

Though Rubin said that he didn’t feel his life was at risk, some of the people with whom he worked have been.

“Whenever I talk or think about the Syrian situation I think of friends from the area who are gone. The guy that made things tolerable for me there was beaten, kidnapped and killed,” Rubin said.

He told the group gathered for Wallowa County’s second annual International Day of Peace at the Hurricane Creek Grange that he keeps a red hat in his back pocket when he is asked to discuss the Syrian situation as a reminder of his lost friend. The man, who was a logistics whiz, was known for wearing a red baseball hat when casualties were coming into the hospital so he could be identified in the chaos.

He credited another colleague, a doctor from Greece, for being crucial in his ability to treat female patients in a patriarchal society. “She would tell patients, ‘If he can save your life or deliver your baby, you should allow him,’” he said.

Making it work

Rubin said no matter where he is assigned he goes with the philosophy, “You’ve got to make it work.” The organization ships medical kits for specific field situations, geographic conditions, and climates whether it’s a complete operating room or all of the supplies needed to treat patients during an epidemic outbreak.

“They provide a small stipend and take care of everything. I just carry a backpack,” Rubin said.

They also provide ample mental health support for its volunteers. Doctors Without Borders sends its doctors away from the operating center for a long weekend during their tours and then evaluates them before they go back to work, Rubin said. Before returning home, he said the volunteers are debriefed in the field with the head of the mission.

When Rubin comes home, he said he doesn’t spend a lot of time talking. He said this was the first time he had spoken publicly about his work and was encouraged to do so by Chris Geyer of the Wallowa County Peace and Justice Network. He said because of the response Saturday, he will continue to talk about his experiences.

The celebration of peace was sponsored by Rotary, Compassionate Communication and the local Baha’i faith community, Geyer said. “Any time we can focus on an alternative to conflict, war, and hate we should embrace it.”

Rubin said he is very passionate about his work, despite the risks. “It’s a very rewarding experience,” he said.