ISTANBUL, Turkey — It’s hard to see, but there is a nine-year-old girl crowned with a sparkly tiara standing amidst the sea of people. A crowd has gathered in front of an ornately decorated concrete building, spilling out onto the sidewalk, for the opening of the Kuwait Istanbul Orthotic Prosthetic Centre. Two men clad in hospital whites are looking out the windows, holding small baskets from which they later toss red rose petals out onto the crowd.
Henin Salih, the girl, is standing next to two boys. One is standing – his name is Ali Abdulkadir Vaiz – and the other, Abdulbasit Alsatouf, is in a child-sized wheelchair.
All three children have lost limbs in the Syrian conflict. You wouldn’t know it unless you get close to them. Henin lost her right leg – and her father – when Syrian regime aircraft dropped a barrel bomb on her neighbourhood in Aleppo. Accompanied by her mother, Henin is confident and outgoing at the opening, until she gets tired from all the attention being lavished on her.
Like Henin, Ali is wearing a prosthetic leg. He’s there with his grandfather, and even kicks a football back and forth with Bulent Yildirim, president of the Turkish NGO IHH. Ali is comfortable enough to kick the ball with his prosthetic leg, and Yildirim points this out to their audience of dignitaries, representatives from the Kuwaiti and Turkish governments, medical staff of the orthotic prosthetic centre, and a swarm of press.
Abdulbasit, captured in February in a heart-wrenching video where he calls out to be picked up by his dad, is presently wheelchair-bound. His mother and younger sister died in the same barrel bomb attack that cost him his legs. He cannot be fitted for prosthetic limbs yet as his wounds haven’t healed enough.
The centre is housed in a narrow, recently refurbished building across from the Mihrimah Sultan Historical Bath in Istanbul’s Fatih district. It’s meant to serve those who have been disabled during the Syrian conflict, but has no elevator. “It’s not a problem,” Abdulbasit’s father says, shrugging it off.
The main feature of the Kuwait Istanbul Orthotic Prosthetic Centre is the high-tech equipment – scanners and 3D printers – that allows prosthetics to be prepared quickly and accurately for people wounded in the war. The replacement limbs are being provided to patients free of charge, thanks to support from Kuwait’s Zakat House, Turkey’s Humanitarian Relief Foundation (IHH) and the Alliance of International Doctors (AID).
The centre will be operating in Istanbul, with branches in the southeastern city of Sanliurfa and Hatay-Reyhanli in the south. But thanks to technological advances, patients may not even need to physically travel to these centres to be measured and fitted.
If a patient is in Syria, for example, her digitally scanned measurements could be sent to the centre, and a custom-made prosthetic could be ready in four to six hours, significantly reducing the turnaround time, Yildirim tells TRT World.
Yildirim says the charity has encountered many people with missing limbs after wars or natural disasters, and sought to establish this centre as an alternative to the high-cost, low-tech methods it previously used, which he says weren’t up to scratch.
Patients’ measurements are taken with a hand-held EinScan-Pro scanner. It resembles a clothes iron, and emits a pulsating light. They are then fed into a 3D printer that builds a prosthetic socket, layer by layer.
The technology is a big advantage when working with young patients who are still growing, Dr Yasar Tatar, the centre’s technical coordinator, tells TRT World. He says that as children grow, or lose or gain weight, the prosthetics have to be altered.
“In the old system, the patient had to come to a centre like this and stay for days. We’ve now minimised that,” Tatar says. “The patient only has to come once or even not at all, and we can get the measurements by scanning and save them digitally. When their measurements change, we … will be able to prepare a new socket and send it, wherever the patient is.”
Tatar says being able to produce – rather than outsource production – allows the centre to serve more people for free. He says the centre plans to print 400 prosthetics in the next year and a half, whereas were they to buy, they would only be able to afford a maximum of 50 prosthetics.
As AID President Dr Mevlut Yurtseven said in an earlier press conference, the prosthetic limbs are expected to significantly improve patients’ quality of life.
“Today we’re not trying to accomplish something merely physical here,” Yurtseven said. “At the same time, it’s a restoration of hope.”
Young Ali’s grandfather is a war survivor who has such hopes for the future. “Even after the destruction [of Syria] all will be rebuilt and rekindled,” Mohammad Ali says. “And this lost generation, all the youth and children that we lost will also be [reborn in future generations] in 20 years.”
“God willing, our return to Syria will come soon. We worship our land, our Syria – and God almighty,” he said with a smile.