Wednesday 13 December 2017

'I couldn't listen to music for fear Isil would cut off my head - I feel safer now'

Syrian children living in the Zaatari camp. Photo: PA
Syrian children living in the Zaatari camp. Photo: PA

Ian Begley

Although Suheil Ahmad (30) can't afford the life-saving treatment his one-year-old baby needs, the Syrian refugee still believes he is one of the lucky ones.

As the sun was starting to set in the makeshift refugee camp of Halba in northern Lebanon, a distraught man holding a baby in one hand and medical documents in the other approached me.

"Please help me. My name is Suheil Ahmad," he said. "I have travelled from Al-Hasakah, Syria, with my wife and sick child to escape the war.

"My son has a birth defect with fluid entering his brain and needs urgent medical attention. He can be treated for €1,500, but we can't afford it. If we don't get him the surgery he needs he will die."

The young father said that the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) would pay only for his son's hospital stay and not the cost of the operation itself.

"I'm constantly worrying about my son, but we are still very lucky to be out of Syria.

Minister of State Joe McHugh meeting Syrian children at a camp school. Photo: PA
Minister of State Joe McHugh meeting Syrian children at a camp school. Photo: PA

"Life was hell under both the regime, Isil and now the Kurds and many people who didn't flee are now dead."

While Suheil's case is tragic, it is certainly not unique. Each Syrian exile has his or her own story of despair and is depending on the generosity of humanitarian organisations such as Concern, Trocaire and Unicef.

Lebanon, which has the same landmass as Northern Ireland, is now home to 1.5 million Syrian refugees. Father-of-six Abd Sanad Dawiyd (62), from Al-Hasakah, said he was very grateful to Concern Worldwide for providing his family with basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter.

"I feel a lot safer now. When I was living in a town controlled by Isil I couldn't even smoke or listen to music out of fear they would cut off my head - there was no freedom at all." 

In the neighbouring country of Jordan, the infamous Zaatari refugee camp, one of the largest in the world, holds 80,000 Syrian exiles.

However, the destructive toll the Syrian war has taken on many individuals within the camp has left behind irreversible damage.

Kabada Shab's (28) life was changed forever when a bullet left him permanently disabled in his hometown of Daara in 2011.

"I was on a motorcycle travelling to work one morning with a friend when the regime forces started shooting all around us. I was hit by a bullet in my back and my friend was struck in the kidney and stomach but survived," he said.

Spending over a month in hospital, Kabada and his wife Gharam Hamad (20) decided to travel to Jordan to continue his treatment, but when their money ran out the couple had no choice but to move to Zaatari.

"I went to Handicapped International within the camp, but they only provide basic treatment, which does not work for me. In my condition I need specialised and advanced support. God willing, we can go back home one day - everyone here wishes for the same thing."

Minister of State for International Development Joe McHugh, who visited several of the refugee camps in Jordan and Lebanon recently, said he could see the majority wanted to return home.

"You can see it in their eyes and expressions that their hearts are still in Syria.

"If we can help Syrians in Jordan and Lebanon reconstruct their own country and help them plan their return when the time is right, then that's money well spent. Syrians want to empower their own people and we have to try to create that facility and environment for them to do so," he said.

The Syrian refugee crisis has become one of the defining humanitarian challenges in recent times with more than half of Syria's pre-war population displaced by the conflict.

With the majority hoping to return to a normal life in Syria, the sad prospect is that there is no certainty how long this will take - or if it will even happen at all.

Irish Independent

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