Yale students and faculty have teamed up with the State University of New York at Albany to provide medical education to Syrian students in the midst of a protracted civil war.

As Syria nears its sixth year of conflict, the country’s public health infrastructure has deteriorated severely, exacerbating an already overwhelming crisis. According to Physicians for Human Rights, 560 medical personnel have been killed since the beginning of the conflict and an additional 15,000 have fled the country. As of May 2014, there were only 40 doctors serving the 2.5 million residents of Aleppo, and only 40 percent of public hospitals in the country were fully functioning.

According to Unni Karunakara, a senior fellow at the Jackson Institute and former international president of Doctors Without Borders, aggressors in the conflict are actively targeting medical facilities as part of a “calculated strategy” to depopulate cities by denying people access to basic health care.

In response to the devastation of Syria’s medical system, the Yale School of Public Health, Yale School of Medicine and The Global Institute for Health and Human Rights at SUNY launched a joint initiative in May 2016 aimed at providing medical students at the Free Aleppo University crucial online study materials, according to Kaveh Khoshnood, associate professor of epidemiology at the School of Public Health and one of the lead faculty involved in the initiative.

The FAU operates in the north of Syria in areas controlled by the national opposition and in besieged areas in the south. Khoshnood said that the university, formerly known as the University of Aleppo before it was devastated, reopened as the FAU around three years ago. He added that the university’s reopening and its participation in the current initiative represents the realization that waiting for the Syrian conflict to end before rebuilding the health system could have grave consequences.

“The Syrians want to begin training physicians now, in the middle of the civil war and in the midst of bombardment, because they recognize that rebuilding the health system could take generations, and they don’t want to waste a moment,” Khoshnood said. “They want to use technology to train the next generation of medical professionals and that is not only genius but also extremely brave of them.”

According to Khoshnood, the initiative was the product of a weekend-long workshop held in May and funded by the Council of Middle East Studies at Yale. Khoshnood said that he pitched what was to become the workshop’s theme, “Conflict and Health,” in response to a call for grant ideas by the CMES. The workshop brought together leaders from the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations, an international network of NGOs providing health services in Syria, and the Syrian American Medical Society, with faculty from SUNY and Yale.

The first part of the initiative’s strategy consists of providing the Syrian students free access to online medical courses. According to Abdulaziz Said, a fellow at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education and one of the key figures behind the initiative, students are not only provided with Yale medical courses but are also offered free English language courses by SUNY in light of the fact that medical education in Syria is traditionally conducted in Arabic. Said added that the students participate in a live lecture session once a week with an instructor typically based in the U.S.

“Students can access these live sessions from within their homes,” Said said. “This is safer for them than gathering in large numbers in classrooms, which can be quite dangerous.”

According to Khoshnood, the FAU has been operating somewhat secretly in order to ensure the students’ safety. While there are certain semi-fixed administrative locations, the students usually meet in small groups in secure locations such as secret basement classrooms, he said.

The second prong of the initiative consists of plans to send the students tablets preloaded with applications providing information on topics such as anatomy and histology. According to Amandine Godier-Furnemont MED ’19, a group of Yale medical students, of which she is a member, is attempting to procure this software at discounted rates by negotiating with particular application providers.

“Many of us here at Yale benefit very strongly from using apps on our devices to learn things such as anatomy,” said Godier-Furnemont. “The students [at FAU] are beginning their anatomy curriculum this coming semester and having a resource that they can access from their smartphones would be extremely helpful given the limitations in textbooks and other electronic resources and also the inability to perform cadaveric dissections.”

Godier-Furnemont added that the students have started a fundraiser in order to support the purchase of these applications.

Mansur Ghani MED ’19, also a member of the group, added that the students are also working on a research and evaluation project which aims to collect data from the Syrian students to more accurately assess their needs.

According to Said, around 370 second-year students are currently enrolled in the medical university and an additional 150 first-year students are due to join this year.