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

Most refugees flee their homeland to escape violence and persecution. For cancer patient Ahmed, leaving Syria was literally a matter of life or death.

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.  © UNHCR/B.Sokol

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