As conflict affects Syria's health sector, many sick and injured seek treatment outside

News Stories, 21 February 2013

© UNHCR/G.Beals
A doctor attends to the stitches of an elderly woman injured while crossing the border between Syria and Jordan.

ZA'ATRI REFUGEE CAMP, Jordan, February 21 (UNHCR) Mustapha* sits on a foam mattress inside a green hospital tent trying to contain his pain. Burns have shrunk the skin on his legs, leaving them bent at a 45-degree angle. Moroccan doctors at a field hospital in Jordan's Za'atri camp have kept his body clear of infection. Soon he will be transferred to another facility to undergo plastic surgery and the hope is that he will walk again.

The 41-year-old Syrian refugee's hazel eyes well up as he recounts the evening when his house in Dara'a was set ablaze during the conflict. He remembers the ear-splitting explosion that rocked his house. The walls of the living room buckled beneath a loud and shifting orange flame. His motorbike glowed with fire. "My clothes were on fire and my body was burning," he said. "I was very surprised that it burned so quickly."

There was no doctor available in Dara'a to tend to his injuries. And so Mustapha's young son gathered a group of men from the neighbourhood to help transport him across the border. At 10am on January 23, they put him in a car and headed towards Jordan. After three hours, they stopped and put their friend on a mattress, which six men hoisted onto their shoulders before heading across the fields and eventually reaching the border.

Others in the hospital here lie next to Mustapha. There is a man with a heart disorder. Another patient suffers from a collapsed lung. The ward is filled, even as a long line stretches to the hospital gate with others seeking medical care. Like Mustapha, many have crossed the border injured or sick.

Staff at the Moroccan hospital in Za'atri have seen more than 93,000 cases since the camp was opened in July last year. And while the hospital is fully equipped with everything from a dental clinic to two surgical theatres and an x-ray room, the increased number of refugees fleeing the border has meant that the facility is working overtime.

Jordan says it has received more than 320,000 Syrians since the conflict erupted in March 2011. They arrive in numbers approaching anywhere between 1,700 to as many as 4,000 each night. Many of are in need of medical treatment.

In partnership with Jordan, UNHCR has worked vigorously to coordinate the response to the crisis. A primary health care coordination centre is expected to open in Za'atri in the coming days. "We're making sure that everyone is working together and taking advantage of the vast resources available in the camp," says Ann Burton, who heads the UNHCR health unit in Jordan.

Meanwhile, the refugee agency is urging its partners to increase the number of general practice physicians with the 10 health partners who work in Za'atri. UNHCR health experts and other doctors believe the breakdown of health services in many parts of Syria has meant they are seeing increasing numbers of refugees with complex medical problems, which is straining the resources available for health care in Jordan.

So far, UNHCR and its partners have staved off epidemic disease. All children aged under 15 are offered a measles vaccination. Each new arrival to the camp is screened for health problems to determine if any are in need of immediate referral to available services.

But while all of the camp health indicators are below emergency thresholds, UNHCR experts are particularly concerned about children. The newly born are the most vulnerable, Burton notes. "We see the same range of health problems in newborns as you would see anywhere, including congenital abnormalities, pre-term birth and low birth weight, and neonatal infections," she says, adding: "We are able to manage many of these in the camp health services, but for more complicated cases we need to refer to the Ministry of Health services."

Burton's Geneva-based colleague, Chris Haskew, says there are inevitably some fatalities and when these do occur, "UNHCR works with the Ministry of Health and its partners to investigate the causes and to look for any preventable factors."

Doctors working in Za'atri are keenly aware of the often violent circumstances under which refugees have fled Syria. Despite the large number of patients who receive treatment, the staff make a point of listening to their stories.

"The majority have lost someone and the impact of this experience is very important," says Bouaiti Elarbi, a doctor at the Moroccan hospital. "They are frustrated, they feel anxiety. They need people to listen to them. We have seen that when we give more time to patients, their mood will change."

Meanwhile, in the hospital's delivery room, 22-year-old Leila* has just given birth to her second child, via Cesarean section. Baby Nara's* grandmother, Noor,* holds the child in her arms and gives thanks that mother and daughter are both healthy.

Leila's other child, Reena,* suffers from epilepsy. Her husband Ali* fled Syria out of the fear he would be killed. The safety of the baby also was part of the decision to leave as the family was concerned that the local hospital might become engulfed in the conflict in Dara'a. When Leila arrived in Jordan she was wracked with nerves and the doctors in Za'atri opted for a Caesarean out of concern for her safety and that of the child.

The thoughts inside Leila's mind conflict with each other. She beams at the sight of her newborn. And she is thankful that for the first time in many months she can sleep at night. And yet the past claws at her. It denies her even the joy of celebration. "Would I lie and tell you I am happy," Leila says. "I am not happy at all. After all we have been through, I am very sad. What will be the future of my child?"

* Names changed for protection reasons.

By Greg Beals in Za'atri Refugee Camp, Jordan

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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

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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.

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

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