BEIRUT

Lebanon News

Refugees find medical care hard to come by

  • Aisha’s children and their cousins play outside their residence in Beddawi, north Lebanon. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

  • Zahra, with Mohammad in her arms, and her other children beside her. (The Daily Star/Mahmoud Kheir)

TRIPOLI, Lebanon: Aisha lost her brother shortly before she fled with her family from Homs two months ago.

The 17-year-old was killed while fighting with rebels, while her 30-year-old elder brother was arrested around the same time.

She didn’t anticipate facing further loss once she arrived in Lebanon. But a series of delays and miscommunications led to Aisha, 27, losing her child shortly after going into labor earlier this month.

Fear and uncertainty meant Aisha – living in a storage unit in the Tripoli suburb of Beddawi with her husband and four children – has not attempted to register with the UNHCR, and when it came to giving birth, she did not know to whom to turn.

Turned away from two hospitals who said they could not help Syrian refugees, she eventually found herself shuttling between two others to find a surgeon who would perform the cesarean section she needed.

By the time she was on the operating table, the baby had died and the damage to her womb was so great she was told she could no longer have children.

Aisha’s case highlights the problems many refugees face in Lebanon where the highly dispersed and often hidden nature of the refugee community makes it difficult for them to find help, or for the major charities to find them.

Though the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is providing aid to around 50,000 registered refugees and a further 18,000 more unregistered, local aid organizations estimate the number of people to be tens of thousands more.

“We see cases with people who are not aware of our presence and it’s difficult to reach out to people,” UNHCR spokesperson Dana Sleiman said in regards to providing health care. “Particularly in a town like Tripoli.”

Without a support network, refugees are left to find help for themselves, turning to local charities or resorting to borrowing money.

Aisha has so far borrowed more than $200 from her neighbors in Lebanon to pay for rent and medicine, with no idea how she will pay it back.

Her experience is not unfamiliar in Lebanon. In a recent survey of 5,000 refugees interviewed by Medicins Sans Frontieres across the country, over 38 percent of those who said they required hospital treatment were unable to access it, either because of a lack of funds or because of security concerns.

Aisha says help is very difficult to find. “We aren’t supposed to have to go out and beg for it,” she says. Two of her other children have medical issues, but she says she has no money to get any treatment other than the local clinic which diagnosed them.

“We hear that money is arriving, but we never see it,” she says. She and other refugees report that getting help often requires having local connections.

The UNHCR is committed to funding all life-saving operations, like that of 14-year-old Hiba, who along with her parents and four brothers and sisters are staying just a short drive away from Aisha having come from Damascus a month ago.

Hiba requires a kidney transplant and in the meantime needs weekly dialysis. Her family registered with the UNHCR two weeks after they arrived and were able to find funding from the organization for the treatment Hiba requires.

Her mother, Nada, says she has been very pleased with the care her family has received while in Lebanon.

“I don’t know how I would pay for her treatment if the U.N. were not paying,” she says.

“My daughter also has very high blood pressure, and they also told me if I needed drugs, I just had to ask.”

Nonetheless, even the biggest organizations are facing funding difficulties when it comes to providing health care, in particular when it comes to dealing with chronic illnesses such as asthma and diabetes.

The decision by Lebanon’s Higher Relief Council to cease funding for medical treatments earlier this year has put a strain on other organizations providing such care.

In the north the Qatar Red Crescent has recently announced it will be directing funds away from these illnesses to focus on wounded patients.

“We’re covering all emergency cases,” Sleiman says. “But still we would like to cater to the needs of every single person who is a refugee and is in need of hospitalization.”

For Zahra, another resident of Bedawwi, the problem was finding a hospital that could provide help, after her two-and-a-half-month-old son Mohammad got sick.

“I went to one hospital, they told me ‘we are not accepting Syrians, you should check another hospital,’” Zahra says. “We spoke to an organization in Akkar, and they sent us to another hospital. The doctor told us our son had something abnormal in his heart. They did some tests and it turned out he had a closed artery.”

But neither the charity in Akkar, nor another one in Tripoli were able to fund the surgery, saying they could only fund emergency procedures.

In the meantime Mohammad began to have serious trouble breathing, and began to throw up his food. Eventually she resorted to knocking on doors to ask locals if they knew anyone that could help. Her story reached an independent activist, who raised the $3,000 she needed via donations.

The UNHCR and the HRC have recently increased efforts to locate and register refugees, but many international organizations have warned that with no end to the violence in Syria in sight, helping these people will require much more money, and soon.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 20, 2012, on page 4.

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