Dialysis for Syrian refugees at risk due to funds shortage

Life-saving treatment for 97 Syrians living in Lebanon could end unless extra funds are found, with most refugees simply unable to cover the costs.

Syrian refugee Abdel Razzaq, 14, risks losing his life-saving dialysis sessions due to a funding shortage among non-governmental organizations that cover the cost of treatment for him and 96 other Syrian refugees.
© UNHCR/Houssam Hariri

Lying in a hospital bed in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, 14-year-old Abdel Razzaq forces himself to sip a glass of sweet, amber-coloured tea. The fluids help his emaciated body through what seems like an endless three-hour dialysis session.


“I get tired, I throw up,” said the young refugee from Aleppo in Syria, whose body relies on the thrice-weekly treatments to continue functioning. “I am dizzy and my blood pressure goes down sometimes.”

Abdel Razzaq suffers from kidney failure, a condition he was born with. For most of his 14 years, he has been kept alive with medication. But since fleeing Syria with his parents seven years ago, his condition has worsened. The arduous dialysis sessions at a local hospital in north Bekaa have kept him going, but now he risks losing his only life-saving treatment.

Each dialysis session in Lebanon costs around US$100 – an impossible amount for Abdel Razzaq’s family to cover three times a week. His father Mohamed is not able to work himself due to another acute medical condition.

“My wife works in cleaning and farming to feed the kids,” explained Mohamed, “But that is not enough.” The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) has been funding Abdel Razzaq’s treatment since 2017, but the NGO is facing funding cuts this year.

Lebanon is currently home to more than 990,000 registered Syrian refugees, many of whom have been there since the early years of Syria’s seven-year conflict. More than half live in extreme poverty on less than US$2.87 per day, while Lebanon has struggled to meet the extra costs of hosting a number of refugees equivalent to a quarter of its total population.

While UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, provides through its partners a wide range of subsidized healthcare services to registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon, it is unable to cover the cost of repeated hospital treatment for chronic diseases such as cancer and kidney failure.

A recent study by UNHCR found that 20 per cent of Syrian refugees in Lebanon requiring secondary or tertiary healthcare were unable to access it in 2017. Of these, two thirds reported that their inability to meet the cost of treatment or transportation was the main reason.

"I can’t go back to Syria at this moment to treat him, it’s too dangerous."

The prospect of losing the financial support they rely on for Abdel Razzaq’s treatment is his mother Halime’s worst nightmare. “I think about him day and night,” she said tearfully. “What can I do to help him? I can’t do much. I can’t go back to Syria at this moment to treat him, it’s too dangerous.”

Currently, there are 218 Syrian refugees in need of dialysis in Lebanon. Since February 2017, a small number of NGOs including SAMS – in coordination with UNHCR – have covered the treatment costs for some of those in need of assistance.

But with some NGO funding due to run out this year, only 121 patients have guaranteed treatment until February 2019. The rest risk losing access to their sessions unless extra resources can be found.

“There are 97 patients who risk losing their life-saving treatment if no money is secured to cover the cost of their treatment,” explained Mona Kiwan, UNHCR’s Associate Public Health Officer, “This is going to negatively affect their life and their health – it’s a matter of life or death.”

Back home, Abdel Razzaq refuses to give up hope. Despite his fragile condition, he works at a sewing machine given to him by a Lebanese lady, to help his mother make ends meet.

“I sew cushion covers and take them down to the market with my brother and sell them,” he saids proudly, while stitching a large auburn pillow. “One day I’ll go back to Syria and I will be a famous tailor.”