The day Lindsey Smith graduated from St. Catherine University’s nurse practitioner program in 2015, she hopped on a plane for a six-month trip to the Middle East. Her intention was to immerse herself in Islamic cultures so she could provide culturally sensitive medical care, but she ended up with a lot more than that: She found a calling.
At one point on the trip, Smith found herself in a marketplace in Turkey, where she saw a woman sobbing and yelling. The woman was saying she had lost her entire family in Syria, and was begging God for mercy.
“I couldn’t understand what she said, but I completely felt her pain,” Smith, 36, said. “And so when I came back, I just knew I needed to do something.”
Since then, she has been committed to traveling with medical teams providing care to areas affected by the war in Syria.
Smith has served as the president of the Minnesota chapter of the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) since she started the local branch in 2017. SAMS is a nonprofit medical relief organization with about 1,600 members involved around the world.
She was the first non-Syrian and the second woman to be a SAMS chapter president.
After she heard about SAMS in 2016, Smith volunteered over the years to provide medical care for refugees in multiple locations. She went to a camp of 35,000 refugees on the border of Greece and Macedonia in April 2016, and another area in Iraq that was only a kilometer away from ISIS-controlled territory in the summer of 2017. Smith also went with a team to Puerto Rico to provide medical relief after Hurricane Maria.
It is difficult for her to pinpoint a specific reason that compels her to do this work. Even if she only makes a difference for one person, she said, all her work is worthwhile.
“I can’t not do this, if that makes sense,” Smith said. She described how difficult it was to come back to the United States after her first medical trip to the Middle East, knowing that so much more could be done. “The thing that kept me going was planning the next trip.”
Dr. Ellen Kennedy, the founder and executive director of the human rights organization World Without Genocide in St. Paul, said that though Smith is not Syrian or Muslim, she has been deeply touched by the atrocities of the Syrian refugee crisis.
“She sees that we all have a moral obligation in the world, and that this is something that we each really have a responsibility to acknowledge, and then to act on,” Kennedy said.
In April, Smith will lead a SAMS medical team for the first time. She and 32 medical professionals, 10 of whom are Minnesotans, will travel to the border of Lebanon and Syria. Refugees make up 30 percent of the population in this area, and half of them are children, Smith said. She said she plans to use a holistic approach to provide sustainable medical resources for the people the team serves.
“I just wish that everyone could find the love that I’ve found,” Smith said, speaking of the Syrian people she has met over the years. “I know that I don’t think I would have that same resilience or positivity or grace if I had gone through what they did.”
Beyond medical trips, Smith also volunteers locally with SAMS to host potlucks for Syrian families, raise funds for the organization and speak at educational events.
“I just feel like this world would be a lot better if we all just did a little something for each other,” Smith said. “I can’t give enough.”
The SAMS Minnesota Chapter can be reached through their Facebook page, or on Twitter @SAMSMinnesota.
Lauren Otto is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.