One tragedy helps young Iraqi overcome another one

News Stories, 3 December 2007

© UNHCR/A.Pourgive
Basim is getting used to his new arm and is learning to look forward to the future.

DAMASCUS, Syria, December 3 (UNHCR) Aged 10, Basim* was a shy, happy-go-lucky boy and Grade A student until he was kidnapped from in front of his home in the southern Iraqi town of Basra one May day two years ago.

After almost three weeks and payment of a large ransom, the young Iraqi was released by his captors. But the boy was hurting mentally and physically and he felt isolated, stressed and angry.

The bodily pains would eventually go, but the mental scars were harder to remove. Basim refused to leave the house on his own and bodyguards had to accompany him every day to school. He used to be one of the top students in his class, but had lost interest after his traumatic experience.

When the family started receiving threats to kidnap their daughters, Basim's father a former member of the Iraqi military moved his wife and children to the safety of neighbouring Syria in late 2005. They were following a well-worn path: Syria now hosts some 1.4 million Iraqi refugees, with Jordan providing shelter to another 750,000 who have fled the deteriorating security situation at home.

The change in atmosphere and environment did little to bring Basim back from the brink; it took further tragedy and the help of UNHCR, a Syrian doctor and an Italian psychologist to do that.

Basim was enrolled in a school in Damascus, but he struggled to pass his exams and remained a tense and angry young man despite the best efforts of his parents to make him forget the abduction.

As Iraqis in Syria, Basim and his family had to travel to the border once every six months to reapply for a residency permit. In January this year they were travelling back from one such trip when their bus crashed. Basim lost his right arm and was left with a scarred face. He was treated at the Italian Hospital in Damascus, with the Italian Red Cross picking up most of the bill.

The boy's state of mind deteriorated even further as a result of the accident. His father, breaking down with emotion, recalled recently that Basim cried often and would sit in a corner of the house and ask: "Is this life?.... Does anyone want my body parts?"

This was when UNHCR entered Basim's life after his father asked the refugee agency's help in finding a prosthetic for his son. UNHCR staff in Damascus referred him to Terre des Hommes, a Christian charity based in the old part of Damascus.

But Basim would not let the doctor, Laurence Kamle, touch him when they first met. "I want nothing. I am waiting for my death.... I was taken hostage for three weeks and now, instead of being safe in this country, this happens to me. Where is the justice behind this?," he reportedly said.

Dr. Laurence realized that he could not help Basim alone and so referred him to a female psychologist at the Italian Hospital. Somehow she managed to connect with the young refugee and his mood had improved by the time he returned to the clinic.

He gained further courage and inspiration after meeting a girl who had also lost her arm and was being fitted for a prosthetic, while preparations for his sister's wedding gave him further motivation. Basim was soon asking Dr. Laurence to speed up the whole process.

In June, Basim finally got his new arm and the effect was remarkable. "I can now walk in the street," a beaming Basim told Dr, Laurence, who had now become a friend after helping him realize that he could help himself and look forward to the future despite still being a refugee. He returned to school and completed 8th Grade.

Basim is still very sensitive, prone to depression and physically weak, but he has definitely regained much of his old confidence. He dreams that science will one day allow him to get a real hand back. "He left our clinic with a new hand and new hope," Dr. Laurence noted.

* Name changed for protection reasons

By Abtin Pourgive in Damascus, Syria