The refugee doctor saving British lives this Christmas…but he can’t be named due to fears for his family in Syria

AS the debate rages over immigration in Britain, spare a thought for “Doctor M” this Christmas.

Today, Christmas Day and Boxing Day, he will be working 11-hour shifts, helping to save lives at a North-East hospital. And yet he can’t be identified because of fears of repercussions for his family back home in Syria.

“Dr M” came to this country from Daraa in 2011 to Stockton and, as Syria descended into civil war amid the rise of ISIS, he sought asylum for himself, his wife and two small children a year later.

Six years on, he is symbolic of the success of a pioneering initiative to provide humanitarian support for refugee doctors and other healthcare professionals while filling gaps in the under-pressure National Health Service.

REPOD – the Resettlement Programme For Overseas Doctors and Health Care Professionals – was established in 2016 as a partnership between the North Tees and Hartlepool NHS Foundation Trust, a charity called Investing In People and Culture, and Health Education England (North East).

Over the past two years, there have been 37 participants in three cohorts – medical professionals who have fled their homelands to escape conflicts and might otherwise have been on benefits or scraping a living in jobs wholly unsuited to their skills. Instead, they are being fast-tracked through training to bolster the NHS in areas where there are desperate shortages.

Out of those early participants, three are now working as doctors in the Teesside trust, with three more on clinical placements, while seven others have just passed their English exams, which are a prerequisite to further training.

Dr M was a member of the second cohort and he is now working as foundation doctor, with ambitions to become a GP.

Due to his marathon Christmas shifts at the University Hospital of North Tees at Stockton – leaving at 7am and not returning until night-time – he will not see his daughter and son until Thursday.

He will, however, try to speak via Skype to his elderly mother and father, plus brothers and sisters inDaraa, knowing that extreme care must be taken to avoid placing them in danger.

“It is hard because although the conflict is really over, it is still dangerous for them if I was identified,” he says. “We never discuss the regime because our conversations may be intercepted. They just tell me ‘it is fine’ but I worry about them always because it is not stable.”

He adds that there are supporters of the regime in this country who feed information back to Syria.

Dr M longs to go back to Syria to see his family but knows he would be arrested at the airport and sent into the military. “It is a case of being ordered to kill or be killed but that is not what I want – I just want the bloodshed to stop.”

And so, at least for the foreseeable future, he has made his home in the North-East, where his daughter and son are settling into English culture.

“We celebrate Christmas in Syria, but the emphasis is more on New Year. Now, my children are more aware of Christmas traditions here – Santa Claus and gifts – and they have received cards from other children,” he says.

“We have been treated well since we came here. It is all about keeping my family safe and I am grateful for the support I have received from the health trust.”

Professor Jane Metcalf, who has overseen the REPOD scheme in her role as Deputy Medical Director at the trust, has no doubt about the value to the NHS of Doctor M and his fellow participants.

“Although we have the best training in the country, there are significant gaps in the North East and Cumbria, so it makes complete sense to not only provide humanitarian support for refugee doctors but to make the best use of their skills,” she says.

Professor Metcalf points out that is costs an average of £250,000 to train a British graduate through the medical ranks, compared to £12,000 for a refugee doctor who already comes with experience and expertise.

“Before the scheme began, some of them were working as taxi drivers and delivering pizzas, but now their skills are being put to good use and it is fantastic value for money,” she adds.

The trust already relies heavily on talent from overseas, with 37 per cent of permanent medical staff coming from other countries around the world. And yet, consultants have been lost due to the uncertainty and bitter arguments continuing over Brexit.

The North Tees scheme is the only one in the North-East and, although there are similar initiatives, in other parts of the country, Professor Metcalf is calling for a more co-ordinated national strategy to maximise the potential offered by refugee doctors.

“"We need to be joined up, so we can signpost these health professionals to the right places, where there is the greatest need and the best match for their skills," she says.

Meanwhile, the Teesside experiment continues to gather momentum, with the latest cohort starting their training last week. Professor Metcalf is confident that more of their predecessors will qualify as doctors in 2019 and play a valuable part in bolstering the creaking NHS.

Dr M is already doing just that. He is a refugee – yes, an immigrant – but he might save a British life this Christmas.