Tough choices for Syrian refugees in need of life-saving assistance

Telling the Human Story, 20 December 2012

© UNHCR/B.Sokol
Syrian refugees, for protection reasons, need to protect their identities. Ahmed (left) and his family find a creative way to do this for a portrait in their kitchen in Erbil.

ERBIL, Iraq, December 20 (UNHCR) Most refugees flee their homeland to escape violence and persecution. For Ahmed,* leaving Syria was literally a matter of life or death. Ahmed, 43, had been fighting stomach cancer for six months before he fled last August to Erbil, the main city in northern Iraq's Kurdistan Region.

Until then, he had been travelling to Damascus every two weeks to receive medical treatment. But it was becoming increasingly difficult to make the journey from his home in north-eastern Syria to the capital as the country's conflict worsened.

"I had to travel for 12 hours from Al Hassakeh to Damascus every couple of weeks in order to get chemotherapy treatment. I had to drive in the middle of shelling and bombarding. I took the risk to survive," Ahmed said.

Still pale and gaunt and holding a large package of medicine at his sister's house in Erbil, Ahmed explained that the violence in Syria eventually made it impossible to get the life-saving cancer treatment he needed. There is a huge and growing lack of medicine in local hospitals throughout much of the country and doctors are sometimes unable to reach hospitals.

"My life was in danger, I could not find medicine anymore and I was about to die. I had to leave Syria to save my life," Ahmed said. "When I arrived here in Erbil, I registered with the UNHCR. This registration enabled me to get residency in [Iraq] Kurdistan. UNHCR staff referred me to Nana Kelly hospital in Erbil, where I get free medical treatment."

Ahmed said he was satisfied with the treatment and chemotherapy he was receiving. "It even includes vitamins. I've gained five kilos in the last five months. I can see my hair growing again. I have been born again. I am very thankful to UNHCR."

The Syrian refugee pointed to the darkened blood vessels on his arms, which he attributed to his continuing chemotherapy. "It is very painful. I lie in bed for three to five hours every time I get the medical treatment. It hurts a lot. But it is saving my life," he said in a low voice.

Ahmed first arrived in Erbil by himself, leaving his wife and four children back home. "I was very concerned about my family. By then, there was a lot of shelling taking place in my neighbourhood. But I had to leave to save my life," he repeated.

Seliman,* aged 10, is Ahmed's only son. He was born with a mental disability. Two months after Ahmed left Syria, the boy became very sick and was admitted to the hospital in Hassakeh.

"Seliman had pneumonia, but there was no more medicine to save his life," Ahmed said softly, his eyes filling with tears. "I lost my only son. I cannot believe it. No more medicine to save my son's life. That is too much."

Ahmed's wife and three daughters finally joined him in Erbil in early November. They all live with Ahmed's sister, who had fled earlier. More than 20 people live in the three-bedroom apartment.

The family members are among some 9,500 Syrian refugees living with the local community in Erbil. Iraq's Kurdistan Region hosts three-quarters of all Syrian refugees in Iraq. Throughout Iraq, the number of those registered or awaiting registration has tripled since September 1 from 18,700 to more than 65,000. And hundreds more continue to arrive every day.

* Names changed for protection reasons.

By Mohammed Abu Asaker in Erbil, Iraq

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Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

As world concern grows over the plight of hundreds of thousands of displaced Syrians, including more than 200,000 refugees, UNHCR staff are working around the clock to provide vital assistance in neighbouring countries. At the political level, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres was due on Thursday (August 30) to address a closed UN Security Council session on Syria.

Large numbers have crossed into Lebanon to escape the violence in Syria. By the end of August, more than 53,000 Syrians across Lebanon had registered or received appointments to be registered. UNHCR's operations for Syrian refugees in Tripoli and the Bekaa Valley resumed on August 28 after being briefly suspended due to insecurity.

Many of the refugees are staying with host families in some of the poorest areas of Lebanon or in public buildings, including schools. This is a concern as the school year starts soon. UNHCR is urgently looking for alternative shelter. The majority of the people looking for safety in Lebanon are from Homs, Aleppo and Daraa and more than half are aged under 18. As the conflict in Syria continues, the situation of the displaced Syrians in Lebanon remains precarious.

Syrian Refugees in Lebanon

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

By mid-September, more than 200,000 Syrian refugees had crossed the border into Turkey. UNHCR estimates that half of them are children, and many have seen their homes destroyed in the conflict before fleeing to the border and safety.

The Turkish authorities have responded by building well-organized refugee camps along southern Turkey's border with Syria. These have assisted 120,000 refugees since the crisis conflict erupted in Syria. There are currently 12 camps hosting 90,000 refugees, while four more are under construction. The government has spent approximately US$300 million to date, and it continues to manage the camps and provide food and medical services.

The UN refugee agency has provided the Turkish government with tents, blankets and kitchen sets for distribution to the refugees. UNHCR also provides advice and guidelines, while staff from the organization monitor voluntary repatriation of refugees.

Most of the refugees crossing into Turkey come from areas of northern Syria, including the city of Aleppo. Some initially stayed in schools or other public buildings, but they have since been moved into the camps, where families live in tents or container homes and all basic services are available.

Turkish Camps Provide Shelter to 90,000 Syrian Refugees

Displaced inside Syria: UNHCR and its Dedicated Staff help the Needy

The violence inside Syria continues to drive people from their homes, with some seeking shelter elsewhere in their country and others risking the crossing into neighbouring countries. The United Nations estimates that up to 4 million people are in need of help, including some 2 million believed to be internally displaced.

The UN refugee agency has 350 staff working inside Syria. Despite the insecurity, they continue to distribute vital assistance in the cities of Damascus, Aleppo, Al Hassakeh and Homs. Thanks to their work and dedication, more than 350,000 people have received non-food items such as blankets, kitchen sets and mattresses. These are essential items for people who often flee their homes with no more than the clothes on their backs. Cash assistance has been given to more than 10,600 vulnerable Syrian families.

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