June 3, 2013

When bombs fall in the Syrian city of Aleppo, it's bad news for the municipal hospital in Kilis, Turkey. The Turkish border town of 80,000 has taken in 35,000 Syrian refugees from Syria's civil war, the majority suffering physical and psychological trauma.

The Knights of Malta, a 900-year-old lay Catholic order, is trying to take the heat off Kilis's municipal hospital by opening up a field hospital in shipping containers nearby.

Killis is 70 km by road from the historic Christian city of Aleppo, which has been the sight of repeated battles between the Free Syrian Army and government forces. It is less than 20 km from Aziz, where a Syrian plane bombed the marketplace Jan. 26, killing 16 and wounding many more, most of them civilians.

Malteser International, the humanitarian relief agency of the Knights of Malta, has partnered with the International Blue Crescent on the field hospital. It will cost $1.8 million per year to deliver post-operative care and therapy, including psycho-social counselling, to Syrians who have lost limbs, homes and family.

With more than 300,000 Syrian refugees in Turkey, out of a total of nearly 1.2 million displaced by the war, local health structures are "overburdened," Malteser International emergency relief co-ordinator Thomas Molitor told The Catholic Register.

Local authorities had hoped the Maltesers would be able to set up a surgery to take pressure off the Kilis hospital's crowded emergency room, but so far there's no money for anything that complex, Molitor said.

"Unfortunately, our capacities are not there. We wanted to start on a small scale. It's a question of funding," he said.

The Maltesers are one of several international agencies trying to deal with the medical side of the refugee crisis in Turkey. Catholic Relief Services, the American Caritas agency, is training staff for counselling and psychological therapy. Doctors Without Borders are in Kilis operating an outpatient clinic from an unused bakery. The American agency International Medical Corps is also present.

The Malteser project is designed to be mobile so it can one day be transferred across the border into Syria, when conditions allow. The Maltesers are employing as many Syrian medical staff as possible, and training them to serve a refugee population.


"We're already thinking about the long run, the five- to 10-year term," said Malteser spokeswoman Joice Biazoto. "We want to make sure that Syrians can rebuild their country."

It's important to build a bridge between the immediate, short-term humanitarian response and the long-term development work that will be necessary whenever the war ends, Biazoto said.

"We are not the ones to do sustainable development in a country like Syria or Turkey," she said. "But we can ensure that we get people ready."

There's been a lot of delicate politics involved in getting the project off the ground. Because Maltesers International are not a registered NGO in Turkey, they've had to turn to their long-time partner in the Muslim world – International Blue Crescent.

In the past the Maltesers have worked with IBC to help with flooding in Pakistan and a major earthquake in Iran. In the early stages of Syria's civil war the Maltesers and IBC combined on a clinic in Damascus.

Turkey does not recognize the wounded Syrians streaming across the Oncupinar border crossing as refugees. Turkish authorities refer to them as guests. They cannot legally work in Turkey and have no right to permanent residence.

Local authorities in Kilis have allowed the Maltesers to hire Syrian doctors, even though the Syrians do not have work permits.

Along with the rest of the humanitarian agencies responding to the Syrian civil war, the Maltesers are careful not to choose sides. "We have to follow the humanitarian principles. That's number one. Everybody who needs to be treated in a hospital will be treated," said Molitor.

Wounded fighters frequently turn up in Kilis needing medical aid.

"There aren't any good or bad people in this country. It's a war going on and there are a lot of horrible things happening on both sides," said Molitor.

More than 70,000 have been killed in the last two years of civil war in Syria.


The Maltesers have been running humanitarian relief projects for the Sovereign Order of Malta for the last 50 years. There are 25 national associations of the Order of Malta which support Malteser International, including the Canadian Knights of Malta.

The Sovereign Order of Malta was established in 1099 and recognized by Pope Paschal II in 1113. The order is present in 120 countries with 13,000 members, 80,000 volunteers and 20,000 medical personnel.

To contribute to the Malteser field hospital in Kilis, go to www.malteser-international.org.