Syrian teenager's cancer treatment makes him one of the lucky few

Telling the Human Story, 26 May 2014

© UNHCR/S.Baldwin
Syrian refugee Sameh, aged 14 years, shares a light and loving moment with his mother and brother in their apartment on the outskirts of Amman. With the help of UNHCR, he has been receiving treatment for cancer.

ZARQA, Jordan, May 26 (UNHCR) As evening approaches on the outskirts of the Jordanian capital, Amman, 14-year-old Sameh heads onto the street outside his apartment block with other young Syrian refugees from the neighbourhood. But while the other boys enjoy a boisterous game of soccer, he stands quietly to one side and looks on.

Since being diagnosed with a brain tumour at the age of three, Sameh has not been able to do many of the things he would like, such as kicking a ball around with friends or, more recently, going to school.

"I can't play. When I kick the soccer ball, I fall," he says. His condition makes walking difficult, and he is also sensitive to noise and light, which intensify his excruciating headaches. As a result, he can no longer attend school despite never learning to read properly.

Things were better back in Syria, he says. He would go with friends to the fields near his home in Al-Hirak and play until sunset, or hang out at a bookshop owned by the father of one of his friends.

Getting treatment for Sameh's cancer was also easier in Syria, his mother Ghada explains. Following his initial diagnosis and a first round of surgery, the tumour returned six years later, forcing him to have a second major operation before his 10th birthday.

They never had problems gaining access to hospitals in Syria, she says, even when they had to travel to the capital Damascus for the second operation. All the treatment was provided for free, and Ghada's husband was there to support her during their son's illness.

But that all changed after conflict engulfed the country. Sameh's father and 15-year-old brother were killed in August 2012, and five months later the fighting forced Ghada who was seven months pregnant to seek refuge with her four other children in neighbouring Jordan.

Within weeks of arriving at the Za'atari refugee camp, Sameh collapsed while walking through the camp. His headaches were stronger than ever before, and the painkillers he took had no effect. He was sent from the camp to a UNHCR-supported hospital run by the Jordan Health Aid Society, where a brain scan revealed a tumour requiring further surgery.

Providing basic health care to the more than 600,000 Syrian refugees registered in Jordan has already placed a huge burden on the country's health services and the international aid effort. For more expensive treatments for cancer and other non-communicable diseases, there is simply not enough money to treat every case. That requires UNHCR and its partners to make difficult decisions over who receives treatment given the limited funds available.

The issue is addressed in a UNHCR study, published yesterday by The Lancet Oncology, which documented hundreds of refugees in Jordan and Syria denied cancer treatment due to limited funds.

The decisions on who to treat fall to the medical experts who sit on UNHCR's Exceptional Care Committees (ECCs), who between 2010 and 2012 were forced to reject more than half of all cancer treatment requests by refugees in Jordan due to the lack of funds, according to The Lancet Oncology.

Sameh was one of the lucky ones. After a four-month wait, the ECC approved UNHCR funding of around 12,500 Jordanian dinars (US$17,640) for two rounds of surgery at the Jordan University Hospital in Amman.

Despite this financial support, Sameh continues to face obstacles in obtaining care in Jordan. Travelling from their current home outside Amman to the hospitals in the city centre requires expensive transport.

Ghada says she had to borrow money or sell some of the food vouchers the family receives each month from the World Food Programme to pay for taxis and other expenses. Following a second operation to try to remove the tumour in November 2013, a bureaucratic delay at the hospital has meant that Sameh has yet to receive a US$388 scan to see whether the procedure was a success, or whether he will need further treatment.

Sameh sits quietly next to his mother in their fifth-floor apartment as the sounds of children playing in the street below drift through an open window. His thoughts are focused on the future.

"I want to go back and tour Syria to forget the time I stayed at home in Jordan. I'm staying all day long at home," he says. "I want to go back to Syria because all of my friends are there. My friend's father owns a bookshop and we used to hang out there, so when I grow up I will own my own bookshop."

By Charlie Dunmore and Joslyn Massad in Zarqa, Jordan

• DONATE NOW •

 

• GET INVOLVED • • STAY INFORMED •
Jordan: Sameh's Struggle with CancerPlay video

Jordan: Sameh's Struggle with Cancer

Sameh was only three when he was found to have a brain tumour. In Syria, he was able to get regular treatment. Now he is a refugee in Jordan and it is more difficult, but UNHCR has been helping the boy who longs to play with his friends and go back home.

UNHCR country pages

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

After Saddam Hussein's regime was toppled in Iraq in 2003, groups of refugees who had lived in the country for many years tried to leave the chaos and lawlessness that soon ensued. Hundreds of people started fleeing to the border with Jordan, including Palestinians in Baghdad and Iranian Kurds from the Al Tash refugee camp in central Iraq.

Aside from a few Palestinians with family connections inside the neighbouring country, the refugees were refused entry and free movement in Jordan. Thousands were soon stranded in the no-man's land between Iraq and Jordan or at the desert camp of Ruweished, located 60 kilometres inside Jordan.

Since 2003, Palestinians, Iranian Kurds, Iranians, Sudanese and Somalis have been living there and suffering the scorching heat and freezing winters of the Jordanian desert. UNHCR and its partners have provided housing and assistance and tried to find solutions – the agency has helped resettle more than 1,000 people in third countries. At the beginning of 2007, a total of 119 people – mostly Palestinians – remained in Ruweished camp without any immediate solution in sight.

Posted on 20 February 2007

Non-Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

The UN refugee agency has launched a US$60 million appeal to fund its work helping hundreds of thousands of Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people. The new appeal concludes that unremitting violence in Iraq will likely mean continued mass internal and external displacement affecting much of the surrounding region. The appeal notes that the current exodus is the largest long-term population movement in the Middle East since the displacement of Palestinians following the creation of Israel in 1948.

UNHCR has warned that the longer this conflict goes on, the more difficult it will become for the hundreds of thousands of displaced and the communities that are trying to help them – both inside and outside Iraq. Because the burden on host communities and governments in the region is enormous, it is essential that the international community support humanitarian efforts.

The US$60 million will cover UNHCR's protection and assistance programmes for Iraqi refugees in Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Turkey, as well as non-Iraqi refugees and internally displaced people within Iraq itself.

Posted on 10 January 2007

Iraqi Refugees in Jordan

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

UNHCR aims to help 25,000 refugee children go to school in Syria by providing financial assistance to families and donating school uniforms and supplies.

There are some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees living in Syria, most having fled the extreme sectarian violence sparked by the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samarra in 2006.

Many Iraqi refugee parents regard education as a top priority, equal in importance to security. While in Iraq, violence and displacement made it difficult for refugee children to attend school with any regularity and many fell behind. Although education is free in Syria, fees associated with uniforms, supplies and transportation make attending school impossible. And far too many refugee children have to work to support their families instead of attending school.

To encourage poor Iraqi families to register their children, UNHCR plans to provide financial assistance to at least 25,000 school-age children, and to provide uniforms, books and school supplies to Iraqi refugees registered with UNHCR. The agency will also advise refugees of their right to send their children to school, and will support NGO programmes for working children.

UNHCR's ninemillion campaign aims to provide a healthy and safe learning environment for nine million refugee children by 2010.

Iraqi Children Go To School in Syria

Jordan: Mohammad's Struggle for SurvivalPlay video

Jordan: Mohammad's Struggle for Survival

Meet Mohammad, a Syrian refugee in Jordan who, without the legal right to work, struggles to support his family and ensure his children's future.
Responding to Syria's Tragedy Play video

Responding to Syria's Tragedy

As Syria's war heads towards a fifth year, the United Nations and partners today launched a major new humanitarian and development appeal, requesting over US$8.4 billion in funds to help nearly 18 million people in Syria and across the region in 2015
Celebrating 10 years of refugee resettlementPlay video

Celebrating 10 years of refugee resettlement