Access to health services: weaving the social fabric of the community

March 28, 2023

Shefa health centre reception area

©UNDP / Syria - Adeeb Alsayed

Twelve years of war in Syria, have led to massive displacement both internal and external. More than 13 million Syrians have been forced to either flee their country or their hometowns. This exodus of educated professionals could potentially cripple recovery and reconstruction plans. However, for medical doctors like Dr Raneem, a dentist from Ashrafeyah, a town in Aleppo which served as a frontline during the war, leaving her country was never a fathomable option. Instead, she chose to stay, hope, and wait the war out.

“I could never leave, and I am not alone. Many of us stayed and decided to hang on to the prospects of surviving the war and rebuilding our country,” says Dr Raneem. “It was so painful to witness the destruction of my place of work, but watching it being rebuilt and re-purposed to serve this community gives us hope.”

Ashrafeyah is a busy town. The medical centre, known as Markaz Shefa (healing centre), was a beehive of services before the war. For seven years since its destruction, residents of the town, not only lost this valuable service, but they also lost their financial security and emotional wellbeing. 

“After the war, living standards plummeted, most medical facilities were destroyed, and many doctors fled.” she says. “Ours was always a popular middle-income town, but now it is a very poor, yet still overpopulated one. Now more than ever, we need to provide the same quality services but with a fraction of their costs, to encourage people to seek medical help without shredding any of their dignity away.”

Markaz Shefa reopened its doors in 2018 with a large palette of services and specialties. They started with 200 beneficiaries, but within a few months the numbers rose to 4000. 

“One of my patients was a very shy young boy. His father passed away in the war, his mom left him with his grandma, and he was only in first grade. He had a teeth and gum infection. He looked scared and deserted. He was one of my first back to work cases,” recalls Dr Raneem. 

“Breaking his silence and gaining his confidence gave me the certainty that I was doing the right thing. I was not just fixing his teeth, I was giving him the motherly tenderness he was craving the most, hoping to guide him a few steps towards teaching him how to connect with people again.”

Community clinics like Markaz Shefa, offer highly specialized medical services at affordable costs. This clinic has become a place where shreds of war-torn families were received, through sharing of stories, and the clinic provides an important thread to weave the social fabric of the community back again.  

Today, more than 15.3 million people are in dire need of life-saving health assistance in 2023, a 3.2 million increase from 2022. These include people with poor physical and mental health, as well as those with limited access to health services.

The United Nations Development Programme in Syria, with support from the Government of Japan, addressed the urgent health needs through the rehabilitation of essential social infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities to ensure the safe return of displaced populations, enhance resilience, promote access to critical services and provide a pathway for recovery. Three clinics were reopened with Japan’s support, with more than 350,000 people benefiting from the services provided.

“I still see my young patient now two years on,” says Dr Raneem. “After that first encounter, I was sure he would come back. We connected and I could see he trusted me and he was no longer scared. A bond was forged between us beyond a dentist and her patient. He needed this. I needed it to give me the energy to keep doing what I stayed back here to do.”