THE BLOG
06/04/2014 12:56 pm ET Updated Aug 03, 2014

She Is an American Girl: 72 Hours in Syrian Refugee Camps

"She was an American girl / raised on promises"

The tears began to mix with the shower water streaming down my face as Tom Petty's "American Girl" blasted from the thin speakers of my iPhone. The desperate words, "Why don't you help us," echoed in my head.

I was part of a humanitarian medical mission assisting the Syrian refugees in Jordan and had returned to my hotel to shower off the grime from the day. Earlier we had been on our way to a makeshift medical treatment area in the Zaatari Refugee Camp located on the Syria-Jordan border when a woman in her late 40s had grabbed hold of my arm to stop us.

"Please help me. I can't find my daughter."

I glanced at my colleague Sam as the woman's eyes filled with tears. "When did you last see her," he gently asked.

"Two years ago," she replied.

I could feel my stomach tighten.

"I have only spoken to her once in the last two years."

She explained that when her Syrian city was barrel-bombed a little over two years ago, her entire family died in the explosions except for herself, her 14-year-old daughter, and her husband's brother. The three abandoned what was left of their home and immediately started their escape to Jordan, but along the way they were separated. In their only communication since then, the woman learned that her daughter had entered a refugee camp in Turkey and had been married off against her will.

I could feel the lump in my throat as I uneasily stated, "I'm so sorry. We can't help you."

She gripped my arm tighter; her sobs grew louder as she pleaded, "They told us that Americans are coming today to help us. Please help us. Please help me find my daughter."

"She couldn't help thinkin' that there / was a little more to life"

"Who is the patient?" I asked.

"It's him." The elderly woman pointed down to the young boy hiding in the loose billows of her long dress.

"Is he your son?" asked Grace, the New York physician for whom I was translating. I immediately regretted translating her question.

The elderly woman explained, "No. We found him while crossing over [from Syria]. We don't know if his family is dead or alive. But he was alone so we took him with us."

The young boy was suffering from Leishmaniasis, a parasitic disease prevalent in Syria but rarely seen by physicians in the West except in their medical school textbooks, and like so many refugee children, he did not speak. He could not smile. He simply stared blankly. His beautiful big brown eyes haunted me, the way he just stared right through me.

"After all it was a great big world / with lots of places to run to"

It was a large empty field, nothing but coarse sand and tent after tent lined up in perfectly straight rows. We placed our supplies on the thin tattered scabies infested mats as we prepared to see the patients.

A man approached us and quietly asked if we could see him.

"Sure, what is your concern?" I asked.

He looked bashful as he rolled up his sleeves and lifted up his shirt exposing severe burns covering his arms and his chest. He described how he awoke to screams in the middle of a cold December night. The gas canister used to provide a little bit of heat to his family exploded and set their tent ablaze. He desperately tried to save his family from the fire but his wife and two-year-old son burned to death before his eyes.

"You are Americans, aren't you?" he looked directly into my weary eyes. "Why don't you help us? Please. Help us."

"She had one little promise / she was gonna keep"

Just 72 hours earlier, I had been standing in line at passport control thinking about how much I wanted to go to my hotel and take a shower after my 14-hour journey to Jordan.

"Ah, you are an American!" The passport agent delightfully took my documents from across the counter. He peered through thick bifocals down at my small frame. "Are you here for business or pleasure?"

"Why was I there?" The Syrian conflict had just passed the third anniversary mark, beginning the fourth year. Yes, the fourth year.

I had thought, "Things can't be that bad. There is no way the situation for the Syrians could be so bad for so long. If it were, someone would be helping them. We the Americans would be helping them."

We are a nation of givers, doers and do-gooders. We are the people that stand up for human dignity and against severe injustice. We would never ignore extreme brutality, vicious physical and emotional abuse, and rape of men, women and children. We would never disregard the calculated slaughter of a population.

We would help the innocent.

As I closed my eyes to rinse out the shampoo, I could see the horrors faced by hundreds of thousands of Syrians, like the man beaten, gang-raped and then thrown out of a third-story window to his death in front of his young son and daughter and his wife; the innocent children suffering from scarring blisters and burns courtesy of the soldiers who poured scalding water on them just to instil fear; the 13-year-old boys shot deliberately in their arms, legs and back while walking home from school to leave them paralyzed.

I scrubbed the grime off my body harder and cried in the steam.