Once-wealthy Syrian doctor works in exile to treat refugees, dreams of healing his country


Dr. Ammar Martini, seen here on Nov. 26 near Reyhanli, Syria, oversees the management of one of the largest Syrian-run NGOs, Orient Humanitarian Relief. While employing displaced Syrians in Turkey and providing eduction and medical care, Orient also sends humanitarian aid over the border into Syria. (Leyland Cecco)
January 16

When the wounded arrived at the Red Crescent hospital in Idlib at the start of the Syrian uprising — opponents of President Bashar al-Assad who had been shot or beaten by government troops — military police ordered the doctors to just let them die.

Ammar Martini and his colleagues refused.

“This I could not do,” said Martini, a successful surgeon from an affluent family. “I treat all people, of any origin. They are human, and I am a doctor.”

A pro-government militia killed the hospital’s general manager for defiance, Martini said, adding that military police detained him repeatedly and brutally tortured him on one occasion.

“They beat me. They did terrifying things,” he said quietly in a recent interview. “I don’t want to remember that day.”

The big story

Syria's warring sides are set to meet Jan. 22 in Geneva for talks aimed at brokering peace in the country. The conflict, which began in March 2011 as largely peaceful protests against President Bashar al-Assad, has killed more than 120,000 people and led to more than 2 million refugees fleeing the country. Fractious opposition groups are battling fighters loyal to Assad as well as those linked to al-Qaeda, part of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria.


• Jan. 15: Western diplomats said to seek Syrian help against al-Qaeda militants

• Jan. 14: Starvation reported at Palestinian camp in Syria

• Jan. 13: U.S., Russia spar over whether to invite Iran to Syria talks

• Jan. 12: Activists say nearly 700 have been killed in past nine days

• Jan. 7: Al-Qaeda-linked rebels in Syria are stretched thin

Two years ago, Martini fled his birthplace and joined the community of Syrians transformed by the war into activists and humanitarians, often uncelebrated.

Martini is, in some ways, typical: mostly apolitical but firmly opposed to Assad’s regime and to the Islamist groups that are vying with other armed opposition groups for control of rebel-held areas.

But his position and background are less common. Before the war, Martini was a wealthy man who owned clinics around Idlib. Now, he lives alone in makeshift quarters in the offices of the aid organization he helped found in this Turkish border town. He heads the group’s relief operations in northern Syria and the Turkish border regions, overseeing the delivery of medical care to hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees.

Martini is deeply skeptical of peace talks scheduled for this month in Geneva, which are supposed to facilitate negotiations between Assad’s government and rebel groups. But he is determined to continue his efforts, aiming for the day when, he hopes, a pluralistic, democratic Syria can be born.

“We must keep working. Whether the time is long or short, this regime will fall,” Martini said. “Then we must rebuild our country.”

After leaving Idlib, Martini spent time treating patients in temporary field hospitals in the surrounding area. Then he crossed the border into Jordan, which aid agencies say shelters more than 563,000 refugees.

When he left Syria, Martini said, he lost everything. The government seized all nine of his houses, along with his bank accounts, a clinical laboratory and 2,000 olive trees. The loss of the olive grove seems to have stung particularly; Idlib is known for its production of the bitter fruit.

In Jordan, the doctor briefly treated patients in the Zaatari refugee camp. Then he fled the difficult conditions to join his wife and youngest child in the United Arab Emirates. His older children escaped Syria, too, and are studying medicine in the United States.

In May 2012, Martini met with an old friend in Dubai, businessman Ghassan Aboud, a fellow Syrian who had left the country years earlier. They founded Orient Humanitarian Relief.

At first, the effort paid for treatment for Syrians in Turkish hospitals. Operations were soon expanded to include the building of a 144-bed medical unit in the city of Antakya, near the Syrian border. Then hostility from Antakya’s Alawites — many of whom support Assad, who is also Alawite — prompted Orient to move the facility to Reyhanli. Alawites are members of a Shiite-affiliated sect.

As the war raged on, Orient’s medical ventures expanded into rebel-held areas of Syria, where it now runs 12 hospitals and several rehabilitation centers and employs more than 400 doctors. Facilities in Turkey include a day clinic, a school for displaced Syrians and a sewing workshop that trains and provides work for many Syrian women.

Aboud — who owns a car and auto-parts group, as well as the opposition Orient TV channel — personally finances Orient Humanitarian Relief’s operations.

“We don’t take money from anyone but him,” Martini said, gesturing at the flat-screen television in the corner of his office that is permanently switched to Aboud’s station. “He pays for everything, from A to Z.”

It is an unusual arrangement for an organization of Orient Humanitarian Relief’s size — staff members said Orient programs and facilities helped nearly 400,000 people last year. But the setup offers a strategic advantage. A member of an aid organization working with Orient said it is able to move faster than any of its peers, making quick decisions unhampered by complicated bureaucracies and approval processes.

Martini is at his desk at the Orient headquarters from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. most days and treats hospital patients on his days off. He is anxious, he said, not to forget his clinical training, which is a source of great personal and family pride.

The many doctors and surgeons in the Martini clan are scattered across Europe and the United States. One uncle founded Martini Hospital in the Syrian city of Aleppo, where fighting between rebels and government forces has been sustained and brutal. Ammar Martini worked at that hospital, now heavily damaged, for 10 years.

At least one uncle, Radwan Martini, was a minister in Assad’s cabinet in the early 2000s and remains faithful to the government.

Syria’s military is a constant threat to Orient’s operations inside the country, Ammar Martini said. Assad’s aircraft frequently target Orient-funded ambulances and hospitals with bombs and gunfire.

But Assad loyalists are no longer the only concern. The al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which has expanded its influence in rebel-held border areas, has threatened to kill Martini for his refusal to accept its goal of an Islamic state.

As a result, Martini can no longer cross the border to work at Orient-funded clinics and hospitals inside Syria. Along with other moderates, he has found himself marginalized, excluded from his country by foreign fighters.

When his father died recently in Syria, Martini was not able to return home to attend the funeral.

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