Interview with Mark Cameron M.B., M.S.M., of CIMRO. Jeff Keary
JK. Let’s be conventional and start at the beginning…please explain what is CIMRO?
MC. Internationally, CIMRO is well known, and was recognized by HM Queen Elizabeth II who awarded the organization the Meritorious Service Medal for work in Syrian war zones, such as vaccinating children against Polio. Within Canada we are less well known. The moniker CIMRO is shared between what is effectively two legally distinct entities, the acronym stands for either Critical Incident Management Response Organization or Canadian International Medical Relief Organization. Believe it or not, the idea of one acronym with two interpretations was inspired by my partner’s desire to save on already purchased office stationery and the cost of designing another logo!
JK. What is the nature of the relationship between what I understand is generally referred to as CIMRO 1 and 2.
MC. CIMRO1 is a medical NGO and was initially funded by the United Nations. When this funding was close to expiring, it became necessary to establish a business, CIMRO2, to earn money to partially future fund CIMRO1. In order to continue our medical relief work, we needed a reliable income to be able to budget for the work of the NGO wing. How could we plan activity without being confident of affording it? Revenue is generated partially by running high level courses for medical professionals who require certification in advanced medical care practices in the field of critical care. We call it CME…continuing medical education. We assist both medical professionals and specialty military and civilian units from almost everywhere globally and Canadian medical teams from Saskatoon to Quebec City and that is just this year. We are trying to spend more time at home vs Europe in 2023.
JK. I understand you are changing the location of your headquarters. Why is that?
MC. Yes, bases in Turkey and Toronto are now being consolidated to a location in Trent Hills. I was born and raised in Trent Hills and its small-town values mean a lot to me. From Mrs. Dart, my teacher in Public School, I learnt the concept of service, which was reinforced by Father Gary O’Dwyer and Mr. Joe Fugger at Campbellford High School. These three were strong influences on the CIMRO ethos, really from the beginning. While many of our team taught at Sunnybrook Health Sciences in Toronto, they are still mainly recruited from small town guys and gals. I hope our new neighbours didn’t mind the recent intrusion of a C130 Hercules aircraft, paratroopers, and a Griffon helicopter, into the serenity of the rolling hills as we put some military personnel through a training exercise recently. Our business is a bit unusual to say the least.
JK. So, tell me how does an organization like CIMRO come into being?
MC. It came about by accident, following a training day at Sunnybrook. We were having dinner at a local restaurant when the television news came on with a story about the war in Syria. My colleague, Dr. Jay Dahman M.S.M., who initially trained at the famous medical school in Damascus, recognized one of his class mates helping treat injured people in the street, and thought he really should go over there and help out. So, by December 2011 we were on the ground in Syria and we were the first foreign medical team to respond to that need. This was not without some challenges as the criminal regime was not especially interested in facilitating the medical treatment of people who they considered to be terrorists. Constantly there was the very real threat of being bombed or shelled by artillery. To avoid that risk, we never stay anywhere longer than eight hours…we keep on the move. Our experts were the first to be able to determine the regime’s use of Sarin gas. Later, and despite the difficulties of operating during a conflict, we succeeded in vaccinating over 1.4 million children eight times each against the massive Polio outbreak of 2014. Had we not done that, it may well have spread throughout Europe. For this action, the local Rotary Club also awarded CIMRO the Paul Harris Fellow award. Further, we were able to prove that the polio virus was spread by the regime through the deliberate contamination of water supplies. Germ warfare in effect. Barbarism.
We invited CBC to document our activities, and at first, they declined, but Adrienne Arsenault has a soft spot for those opposing despotic regimes and took a shine to us ‘Sunnybrook Cowboys.’ Pulling a few strings brought us to the attention of Saša Petricic and Derek Stoffel who very courageously, and at great personal risk, provided much needed, balanced and credible reporting, on a fast-moving humanitarian disaster. Following that engagement, we established CIMRO as an NGO with the letters standing for Canadian International Medical Relief Organization. Everyone in the region knows us, in Canada not so much. Being Canadian in this region signifies trust, something we do not take lightly. We post prominently the Charter of Rights and Freedoms in every office we have.
JK. What did you learn from that first Syrian experience?
MC. We came to understand that we had real world expertise in general disaster planning, trauma medicine, war crime evidence retrieval, and CBRN defence. (Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear.) We could clearly see the need for the wider application of our abilities. Teaching non-subject matter experts a specific medical education program, we could transform ob-gynecologists, nurses, paediatricians, and even psychiatrists to be emergency level performers in a very short time. It is particularly in times of crisis that non-experts can be called upon to play a role beyond their normal skill set and we can make that happen. Over there physicians do not receive such a broad a training as in Canada. In crises, they need very special skill sets. We help transform them in this regard.
JK. So what are you engaged in at the moment?
MC. We are still undertaking work in Syria, mostly training. We are going to be active in South America, Guyana to be precise, in 2023, and we are operating in Ukraine at present. But I do not want to say too much about that, as I do not wish to take the risk of alerting anyone to where we are and what we are doing. Russia has a history of killing medical personnel. We are launching a program focusing on mental health trauma with a Harvard colleague in Uganda in 2022/2023 that we are very excited about.
JK. You must have learned a lot about how living through conflict affects people’s psyches?
MC. Yes, indeed. Syria for one will have an enormous problem. Our neurobiologist, Dr. Turhan Canli observes rates of PTSD among children rising to almost ninety-five percent. The increase is directly related to the severity and duration of conflict. PTSD actually causes changes to one’s genetic material and our current research reinforces this. Physical injuries usually heal; mental health issues may not. Syrian children born since 2011 have known nothing but war.
JK. What has been your experience of Russian involvement in Syria and Ukraine?
MC. What Russian is doing in Ukraine follows a pattern well established from their assistance to dictators in Syria. That is, direct violence against civilian populations, particularly medical workers and children. These are war crimes. With the current level of highly sophisticated weaponry available, it is almost impossible to excuse the bombing of schools and hospitals as accidental or unintentional…that is pure fiction. Unfortunately, the Russians have had plenty of time to practise their approach in Syria. Women and children are the biggest losers in war, I know we all are, but they top the list.
JK. How do you see this unravelling in the near future?
MC. Over the next six months we may deploy as many as forty times to places where the most unimaginable suffering is encountered. We will provide direct medical care and education to hundreds of people and hope to assist Global Affairs in some of their current challenges. We do not work for the Government of Canada or any other government for that matter, but we will certainly help, when asked. Getting governments to ask for private, expert help is a real challenge. Our team is amazing, mostly young, dedicated, well practised, and diverse in medical and technical knowledge. The top ten members of our team speak over fifty languages, if you include my horrible Arabic, and our teams have the capacity to make a real difference globally. One of our Syrian physician colleagues is treating patients literally on the front lines in Ukraine at severe personal risk. I talked to him just last week, I asked how he was. His response, “child’s play, compared to Aleppo, but here the devil hides beside a nuclear facility.” Very quietly we are saving lives in Ukraine as well. In Uganda in October, we have a new project about which we are simultaneously very excited and concerned.
JK. What’s the most profound lesson you have learned from these extraordinary experiences?
MC. What makes me smile is the realization that “folks are folks” to quote Samuel Clemens and most people are good, even in circumstances of extreme suffering. Differences between intelligent, thoughtful people are small, no matter what the media or warring ‘nation states’ would have us believe. I trust most Muslims with my safety more than I trust most Christians actually. If not for them I would be dead many times over by now.
JK. What could be the best outcome of this exposure in Grapevine Magazine?
MC. Quite simple, apart from putting the Sunnybrook Cowboys on the map, we need more medical professionals to engage with our training and certification courses so we can generate revenue to continue with our humanitarian work globally. We are not just a Syrian charity; we are active on four continents presently. It takes funding to float a ship in any direction.
JK. And finally, how does a man in your position relax, if you ever do?
MC. I like to listen to music, my current favourite band is Walk Off the Earth.
Then walking the two dogs, gardening and cooking, particularly recipes from Grapevine Magazine.