Rola Hallam

Rola Hallam: The doctors, nurses and aid workers rebuilding Syria

Local humanitarians are beacons of light in the darkness of war, says humanitarian aid entrepreneur and TED Fellow Rola Hallam. She's working to help responders on the ground in devastated communities like Syria, where the destruction of health care is being used as a weapon of war. One of her campaigns achieved a global first: a crowdfunded hospital. Since it opened in 2017, the aptly named Hope Hospital has treated thousands of children. "Local humanitarians have the courage to persist, to dust themselves off from the wreckage and to start again, risking their lives to save others," Hallam says. "We can match their courage by not looking away or turning our backs."

"Five hospitals in Aleppo have been bombed." That was a text message that I received on a dark winter night in November 2016. One of them was a children's hospital run by my Syrian colleagues at the Independent Doctors Association, IDA. It was the sixth time it had been bombed. I watched in horror heartbreaking footage of the head nurse, Malak, in the aftermath of the bombing, grabbing premature babies out of their incubators, desperate to get them to safety, before she broke down in tears. And I felt devastated. Fellow humanitarians and I have spent blood, sweat and tears rebuilding hospitals so that our patients may live, not die.

And through this work, I made a discovery. The reason that people survive in crisis is because of the remarkable work of the people in crisis themselves. People survive because of the local doctors, nurses and aid workers who are from the very heart of the affected community, the people who dare to work where others can't or won't. People survive because of people like Malak, who, despite sustaining a severe burns injury in the line of duty, the first thing she did when discharged from hospital was to go back caring for small children. From the rubble of death and devastation arise the most gallant and noble human beings. Local humanitarians are the beacons of light in the darkness of war.

Now, the data shows that Syrian organizations carry out 75 percent of the humanitarian work in Syria. Yet, they receive 0.3 percent of the Syria aid budget. And what's more, the same is happening across the crises of the world. I have witnessed this reality. It means those with the knowledge, skill and ability to respond on the front lines have little of the necessary tools, equipment and resources they need to save lives. It means groups like IDA don't have funds to rebuild their hospital. The humanitarian system is failing the most vulnerable communities in their darkest hours.

Now, at the time of receiving that message, I was on sabbatical from my clinical work, setting up CanDo, a start-up determined to address this imbalance and enable local responders to provide health care to their war-devastated communities. We had devised a simple model: source trusted and impactful local groups, support their development through an accelerator program and connect them to you via our crowdfunding platform, where they can fund-raise for their health needs. So when IDA asked for help, I decided to launch CanDo seven months early, with very little money, and many people, including myself, thought I had finally gone mad. I wanted to do something that transformed our collective anger into something beautiful.

And that's how the People's Convoy was born. It was a global crowdfunding campaign to enable IDA to rebuild a whole new children's hospital, and, if successful, we the people would take the medical equipment all the way from London to the Syria border. And we did it. Thousands of people came together from across the world to achieve a global first: we built the first-ever crowdfunded hospital. The location was carefully chosen by the local experts, IDA, where they knew it would be safe and serve the greatest number of displaced children. IDA was so moved by people's response, they named it "Hope Hospital." It's been open for exactly one year, and they have treated over 15,000 children.


We can provide lifesaving assistance in the most volatile places on earth. The system needs to change, and change starts with us all sharing a new humanitarian vision, one where you, global citizens with skills, expertise and resources, stand together with the local responders; one where we are all humanitarians, putting the necessary resources in the hands of those who need them most and are best placed to use them effectively and efficiently. We need to support the people who are not only saving lives now, but it will also be them stitching their wounded communities back together, once a conflict is over to help them heal. Local humanitarians have the courage to persist, to dust themselves off from the wreckage and to start again, risking their lives to save others. And we can match their courage by not looking away or turning our backs, by helping those who are helping themselves, and together, save more lives.

Thank you.




Shoham Arad: Come over here, please. Why are hospitals being bombed?

Rola Hallam: Yeah, good question. So, Physicians for Human Rights have documented nearly 500 attacks on hospitals and over 800 medical personnel who have been killed -- over 90 percent of it by the Syrian regime -- and they say this is part of a systemic targeting and destruction of health care, using it as a weapon of war. And the thing with this is that it's not just our problem, it's yours, too, and everyone's, because A, it exacerbates the refugee situation -- when you have a decimated health care system, it means the next Ebola-type epicenter of disease is going to be Syria; and unfortunately, it sets a very dangerous precedent that makes all of our hospitals anywhere in the world dangerous, and that is not how it should be.

SA: So this actually isn't just about money, either, CanDo isn't just about money. Tell me what it means to you that 5,000 people all over the world contributed 350,000 dollars to build Hope Hospital.

RH: I think the answer is in that word, it's in hope. I think everyone who donated, they had their faith in humanity renewed, knowing there are people like IDA and those doctors, who are exhibiting the absolute best of humanity, and it was like an absolute reciprocation. IDA and these Syrians and many people in places of conflict feel very unheard and unseen. And I think the fact that -- and they see things through the prism of government, so when they see government's not acting, they assume everyone who lives in those places doesn't care. So when they see that display, it really does just renew everyone's faith in humanity.

SA: Thank you, Rola.

RH: Thank you. SA: Thank you for everything.