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The Curious Boy

Samir was polite, helpful, and full of questions-Where were we from? How did we become doctors? And we, in turn, wonder what his future will hold.

By Omar Lattouf

Story Photo

Emory surgeon Omar Lattouf volunteered with his daughters, Zeena and Amal (below), at the Al-Zaatari refugee camp, where they met Samir (above).

Inspired by my daughters, Amal, a dentist, and Zeena, a senior at Emory College, I decided to accompany them on a volunteer medical mission trip to Al-Zaatari refugee camp, about 50 miles north of Amman, Jordan, in January.

At Al-Zatari camp

Since 2012 the camp has been home to Syrians who are fleeing violence in the ongoing Syrian civil war. In an orientation before our trip, we learned that Zaatari, which resembles a small city, is home to 86,000 inhabitants—mostly women and children and, to a lesser degree, older men. On the first two days, I volunteered in the emergency room, where I saw several children with second-degree burns on their arms, legs, and chests from scalding water.

Being a cardiothoracic surgeon, I was out of my specialty for those few days. There was no cardiac surgical operating room, no ICU, and no surgical team. I became the local "expert surgeon,” seeing potential surgical patients who needed further evaluation.

During the rest of the visit, while Amal worked in the dental clinic with two other young American dentists, Zeena and I helped with screening exams in the eye clinic. We saw patients as young as 2 through their late 70s. My friend, Bill Burke, president of Prevent Blindness Georgia, had brought with him individually wrapped candies to give to each child after their exam. Pretty quickly, the eye clinic became the "candy store" for the camp kids. Three young boys, ages 9 or 10, showed up on the first day for their exams. Each had good eyesight, each was given a piece of candy. They came back with several new young kids to be examined and take a candy.

Quickly we realized these three children—Samir, Abdullah, and Abdul Kader—were our strongest recruiters. They would inform parents about the free eye exams and bring children in. They became de-facto members of our team, telling other children where to stand and how to focus. The next day, Samir, the most vocal and assertive of the three, showed up and wanted to help Zeena. To our surprise, he never asked for another piece of candy. Samir was cooperative, always showing up on our arrival, leaving at 11 a.m. to attend his school, and returning before our afternoon departure.

He was a skinny kid, weighing barely 50 pounds, round faced, skin burnt by the sun’s summer rays, with dirty blond hair and piercing eyes. He was inquisitive but polite—always wanting to help but never getting in the way.

Samir would ask questions about where we came from and how we became doctors. I could tell there was a lot of thinking going on in that child’s mind. Seizing the opportunity, I encouraged him to take school seriously. He seemed to understand that to become a doctor, he had to intently focus on his education. We all took a liking to Samir. We would inquire about him when he was not around, and realized that we looked forward to seeing him every day.

And so came the day that we were winding up our work in the mission, having examined the eyes of more than 350 patients and referring about 40 with major vision issues. My daughter, Amal, and her colleagues had treated 300-plus dental patients. We were ready to head back home. As we waited for the bus to leave, I noticed a child sitting on the side of the road, his head pointed down, almost motionless. I looked closer and realized the boy was Samir. Zeena got off the bus and walked over to him, extending her hand with some candy. I could see Samir's hand reaching out, with his head still pointing to his feet. A few minutes later, Zeena came back to the bus and took her seat, tears flowing.

As we pulled out, Samir faded from view, but not from our thoughts and hearts. He has became a living symbol of the Al-Zaatari camp and will stay with us for many years to come.

Goodbye, Samir, my friend. I hope we will meet again.

Omar Lattouf, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Emory University Hospital Midtown and professor of surgery at Emory School of Medicine, wrote about his trip to Al-Zaatari refugee camp for ArabAmerica.com. A condensed version appears here.

Bonus Content: Zaatari documentary trailer

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