The Arab doctors who died of coronavirus on Italy’s front lines

Friends, patients and family members remember doctors who paid ultimate sacrifice during coronavirus outbreak.

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A scene from the funeral of Palestinian doctor Tahsin Khrisat, who was buried in the Muslim section of Brescia's public cemetery [Courtesy of family]

Sicily, Italy – The 100th doctor to die on Italy’s front lines as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus epidemic was Samar Sinjab, a 62-year-old Syrian woman who was born in Damascus and lived in Italy’s northeast Veneto region since 1994.

She contracted the virus from a patient in the early stages of the pandemic and died after spending two weeks in an intensive care unit.

She worked until her last days. The last WhatsApp message she sent was to one of her patients, according to the Corriere della Sera newspaper.

More than 18,000 people have died in Italy from COVID-19, a disease that has infected more than 143,000 people in the country.

More than 8,000 healthcare workers have been infected, the majority in northern regions, according to the Italian National Institute of Health, and at least 100 doctors have died.

Family doctors visiting patients at home, without personal protective equipment (PPE), were the first to catch the virus.

According to the Association of Foreign Doctors in Italy, there are about 20,000 doctors with ancestry in other countries.

Of those, 3,700 come from the Middle East. Since the 1960s, young Arabs have studied medicine in Italy.

“It was an unquestioned duty for us to serve our second homeland, considering the unprecedented emergency,” Foad Aodi, president of the association, told Al Jazeera.

“While treating patients, at least 15 Arab doctors have reportedly been hospitalised, three of whom are currently in ICU with severe conditions. We also lost some of our colleagues and friends. But as we mourn, we still feel committed to Italy and our profession.”

Here, Al Jazeera profiles four Arab doctors who lost their lives in this pandemic.

Abdel Sattar Airoud – A family doctor who came out of retirement amid the epidemic

Airoud was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1945.

At 19, he realised his dream and arrived in Italy to study medicine. He specialised in oncology and internal medicine at the University of Bologna in the country’s north.

After four years in a private clinic, he opened his own practice in a town near Piacenza, in the region of Emilia-Romagna, and became a well-known family doctor.

“He was very generous and kind. He followed me throughout my three pregnancies, and never complained about my numerous phone calls to ease my worries. He will be missed, also as a friend,” Anita Santelli, one of his patients, told Al Jazeera.

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Abdel Sattar Airoud was among the first doctors to contract the virus from a patient [Courtesy of family]

His eldest daughter, 35-year-old Kinda Airoud, said: “My father never forgot his roots, Syria was part of our upbringing.”

He had been retired for five years but returned to work when the epidemic began; he did not want to abandon his former patients at a difficult time.

“We spent every summer of my youth in Syria, until the war began. But he also owed everything to the country that welcomed him, so it was natural for him to help those patients he had kept in contact with.”

Airoud was among the first doctors to contract coronavirus from a patient. As he showed mild symptoms, he tested negative at first.

“Then suddenly one night his conditions worsened, so we called an ambulance. That’s when we last saw him,” said Kinda.

Airoud died on March 16.

His body was buried in Brescia, a city almost two hours away from Piacenza because there was no section for Muslims at the local cemetery at the time.

After a second Syrian national passed away, Piacenza’s mayor secured a dedicated area for Muslim burials to keep them closer to their loved ones.

Tahsin Khrisat – A gentle widower with a caring bedside manner

A Palestinian from Jordan, 66-year-old Khrisat worked in Brescia, one of the worst-hit cities in the region of Lombardy.

“He had lost his wife a few years ago, and suffered because of that,” Federica Maestri, Khrisat’s former colleague, told Al Jazeera.

She said the pain of the epidemic, “instead of closing him in, opened him to a new form of sensibility and empathy towards others.”

He was kind, compassionate, funny and, as an ER doctor, loved sharing stories about his childhood in Amman during rare breaks in long night shifts.

He later opened his own private clinic.

“Almost every day, Tahsin would send good morning or encouragement messages to his friends and patients, to remind them of his presence in case of need. It was his way of saying, ‘I’ll always be there for you’,” Maestri said.

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Tahsin Khrisat enjoyed telling people stories about his childhood in Jordan [Courtesy of family]

In the early days of the pandemic, he was infected by a patient.

“We used a Facebook Live feature to give relatives both in Italy and Jordan a sense of normality while grieving in such a painful context,” Raisa Labaran, spokeswoman of the Islamic Cultural Center of Brescia, told Al Jazeera.

His pre-existing heart condition made him more vulnerable to the virus. He died on March 22.

Only the imam and employees of a local Muslim funeral home were allowed to attend the burial.

Khrisat’s body now rests in the Muslim section of Brescia’s public cemetery.

However, the situation for Muslim burials remains critical in Italy amid a shortage of space.

“There are now only 20 places left in the cemetery, and with the current lockdown situation, it’s been hard to organise burials or repatriate the bodies to their home countries.

“Fears of possible cremation, forbidden in Islam, add to the overall sentiment of anxiety,” said Labaran.

Abdulghani Makki – A loving grandfather who loved Italy and Syria in equal measure

Born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1941, Makki was not only known as a doctor but also as a cultural pillar in his local community in Sant’Elpidio a Mare, in Italy’s Marche region.

“He was a symbol of cultural integration, his tales will be his legacy,” said his friend Corrado Virgili, who last saw him on March 2.

After studying medicine and surgery in Italy, he had planned to return to Syria. But he fell in love with an Italian woman and had called Italy home since 1961.

Makki specialised in reanimation as well as paediatrics, and later dentistry.

He helped his eldest daughter Leila open and run a family clinic.

“He would work with passion to assist his patients, never forgetting his role of husband, father and grandfather,” Leila told Al Jazeera.

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Abdulghani Makki was a caring doctor, husband and father who saw no differences between religions and nationalities [Courtesy of family]

When he was not looking after his patients, Makki would tell stories to his granddaughters – talents that saw him author children’s books.

In his tales, Makki mixed Arab and Italian traditions to foster intercultural dialogue in his local community.

Leila says her father’s love for Syria and Italy was equal.

“In our household, there was no difference between Muslim and Christian, Italian or Syrian. My sister and I grew up with a broader understanding of humankind, thanks to him,” she said.

Makki died on March 24, aged 79.

His latest book, illustrated by his friend Virgili, will be published posthumously with the title Mariam and the Savannah Queen.

Ghvont Mouradian – A ‘spiritual guide’ who specialised in alternative therapies

Known by his nickname, Revont, Mouradian died on March 29, aged 61.

Besides practising modern medicine, he also specialised in acupuncture and hydrotherapy.

Mouradian was born to an Armenian family in Qamishli, northern Syria, where he spent his childhood.

He moved to India to study gynaecology and in 1987, travelled to Italy to specialise in medical hydrology at the University of Pavia.

He became a respected thermal doctor in Salsomaggiore, a city in northern Italy known for its healing thermal baths, where he kept caring for his patients until the lockdown was enforced.

Mouradian’s relatives, split between Syria and Lebanon, were deeply saddened by not being able to say a final goodbye due to travel restrictions.

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As well as specialising in modern medicine, Ghvont Mouradian was an expert on alternative therapies [Courtesy of family]

His nephew in Beirut, Sarkis Kerkezian, wrote on Facebook: “He was there for all of us in times of trouble and when we had health issues.

“Grumpy with a unique sense of humour, kind-hearted, loving and caring to all his family and friends. He left a trace with everyone who came to know him with his unique spirit.”

His colleague Roberta Bianchi said on her social media page: “When you used to leave for India or China for a few weeks, everybody would miss you. Now that you’re gone forever, you will leave an unbridgeable void. He was a colleague, a friend, a spiritual guide to us all.”

Mirko Avesani, a neurologist from the Lombardy region who knew Mouradian, told Al Jazeera that these Arab doctors, who have paid the ultimate sacrifice, must be remembered.

“Immigration should not just be associated with problems. The sacrifice of these doctors teaches us an important lesson, for future reference,” he said.

Source: Al Jazeera