UNHCR teams working to fight the expansion of polio in Syria

Press Releases, 13 November 2013

The UN refugee agency (UNHCR) is working to help address polio vaccination needs inside Syria's hard-to-reach zones in close coordination with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent as the two relief agencies have joined with other agencies to participate in the national polio vaccination campaign that began recently following reports of several polio cases.

UNHCR and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent (SARC) are working together to support the vaccination campaign in areas that are usually hard to reach in Rural Damascus, Rural Homs, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.

Reports that thirteen children have contracted polio have been confirmed recently. Syria eradicated polio 14 years ago but vaccination efforts have suffered during the last three years of conflict.

At a public health centre in Al Hassakeh in eastern Syria, where 23 UNHCR-supported health volunteers are providing awareness sessions on issues relating to polio and other health-related issues, in one month the number of children attending the centre rose from 46 to 1,357. The UNHCR volunteers are also vaccinating children.

So far, throughout Al Hassakeh province, 87,728 children have been vaccinated including 7,676 children who were vaccinated by the UNHCR-supported volunteers. Next week UNHCR's volunteers will join mobile teams to access children in remote areas.

"It is clear whilst the work has started, much more remains to be done," said UNHCR Representative in Damascus Tarik Kurdi. "UNHCR is pleased to work closely with its health partners to ensure that vulnerable children and other persons in hard-to-reach zones in Rural Damascus, in Rural Homs, in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa get access to the vaccinations they require."

The total target group of children expected to be vaccinated throughout Al Hassakeh province is 241,203 children according to Ministry of Health statistics. The World Health Organization is planning six to eight rounds of oral polio vaccinations in Syria. UNICEF has procured 1.35 billion doses of oral polio vaccine and by the end of this year expects to have 1.7 billion doses for use in its worldwide vaccination programmes including in the Middle East region.

Preparation to reach the target population of youngsters under the age of five years-old are currently underway, including the training of volunteers, efforts to secure the cold chain and other logistical efforts. It is hoped that the polio vaccinations in Rural Damascus, Deir Ezzor and Raqqa will start in a week's time, while SARC has already started the vaccinations in Rural Homs.

Meanwhile, UNHCR continues to participate in the awareness campaign highlighting issues surrounding polio and measles. Awareness campaigns are a proven means to reaching vulnerable young Syrian children who may have missed vital vaccinations.

Special outreach programming at UNHCR's cash distribution centre in Damascus has reached some 5,000 persons in Damascus (800 displaced families). As UNHCR's monthly cash distribution commenced this week in Lattakia it is expected that more than 36,000 vulnerable persons (6,000 families) will be reached in that community with messages about the need to ensure the vaccination of children.

Thousands of displaced persons and other needy groups approach UNHCR for cash assistance each month so the distribution centres are ideal locations to inform conflict-affected persons about the UN's vaccination campaign. The UNHCR also provides core relief items like cooking supplies, tents, plastic tarpaulin, blankets and hygienic items that so far this year have reached more than 2.7 million people in all of Syria's 14 governorates.

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Haunted by a sinking ship

Thamer and Thayer are two brothers from Syria who risked their lives in the hope of reaching Europe. The sea voyage was fraught with danger. But home had become a war zone.

Before the conflict, they led a simple life in a small, tight-knit community they describe as "serene". Syria offered them hope and a future. Then conflict broke out and they were among the millions forced to flee, eventually finding their way to Libya and making a desperate decision.

At a cost of US$ 2,000 each, they boarded a boat with over 200 others and set sail for Italy. They knew that capsizing was a very real possibility. But they hadn't expected bullets, fired by militiamen and puncturing their boat off the coast of Lampedusa.

As water licked their ankles, the brothers clung to one another in the chaos. "I saw my life flash before my eyes," recalls Thayer. "I saw my childhood. I saw people from when I was young. Things I thought I no longer remembered."

After ten terrifying hours, the boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea, throwing occupants overboard. Rescue, when it finally came, was too late for many.

Theirs was the second of two deadly shipwrecks off the coast of Lampedusa last October. Claiming hundreds of lives, the disasters sparked a debate on asylum policy in Europe, leading Italian authorities to launch the Mare Nostrum search and rescue operation. To date, it has saved more than 80,000 people in distress at sea.

Eight months on, having applied for asylum in a sleepy coastal town in western Sicily, Thamer and Thayer are waiting to restart their lives.

"We want to make our own lives and move on," they explain.

Haunted by a sinking ship

A Teenager in Exile

Like fathers and sons everywhere, Fewaz and Malak sometimes struggle to coexist. A new haircut and a sly cigarette are all it takes to raise tensions in the cramped apartment they currently call home. But, despite this, a powerful bond holds them together: refugees from Syria, they have been stranded for almost a year in an impoverished neighbourhood of Athens.

They fled their home with the rest of the family in the summer of 2012, after war threw their previously peaceful life into turmoil. From Turkey, they made several perilous attempts to enter Greece.

Thirteen-year-old Malak was the first to make it through the Evros border crossing. But Fewaz, his wife and their two other children were not so lucky at sea, spending their life savings on treacherous voyages on the Mediterranean only to be turned back by the Greek coastguard.

Finally, on their sixth attempt, the rest of the family crossed over at Evros. While his wife and two children travelled on to Germany, Fewaz headed to Athens to be reunited with Malak.

"When I finally saw my dad in Athens, I was so happy that words can't describe," says Malak. However, the teenager is haunted by the possibility of losing his father again. "I am afraid that if my dad is taken, what will I do without him?"

Until the family can be reunited, Malak and his father are determined to stick together. The boy is learning to get by in Greek. And Fewaz is starting to get used to his son's haircut.

A Teenager in Exile

Jihan's Story

Like millions, 34-year-old Jihan was willing to risk everything in order to escape war-torn Syria and find safety for her family. Unlike most, she is blind.

Nine months ago, she fled Damascus with her husband, Ashraf, 35, who is also losing his sight. Together with their two sons, they made their way to Turkey, boarding a boat with 40 others and setting out on the Mediterranean Sea. They hoped the journey would take eight hours. There was no guarantee they would make it alive.

After a treacherous voyage that lasted 45 hours, the family finally arrived at a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, called Milos - miles off course. Without support or assistance, they had to find their own way to Athens.

The police detained them for four days upon their arrival. They were cautioned to stay out of Athens, as well as three other Greek cities, leaving them stranded.

By now destitute and exhausted, the family were forced to split up - with Ashraf continuing the journey northwards in search of asylum and Jihan taking their two sons to Lavrion, an informal settlement about an hour's drive from the Greek capital.

Today, Jihan can only wait to be reunited with her husband, who has since been granted asylum in Denmark. The single room she shares with her two sons, Ahmed, 5, and Mohammad, 7, is tiny, and she worries about their education. Without an urgent, highly complex corneal transplant, her left eye will close forever.

"We came here for a better life and to find people who might better understand our situation," she says, sadly. "I am so upset when I see how little they do [understand]."

Jihan's Story

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