By Miriam Azar
BEIRUT, 11th February 2015 – Removing her shoe, a middle-aged Syrian refugee woman dangles her foot over a small fire, while her husband crouches, rubbing his hand against each other. Nearby, washed clothes hung over a line sway in the freezing breeze, drying at a snail’s pace.
Living in makeshift tents in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, Syrian refugees try to cope with the bitter winter elements – the snowstorms, hurling winds, rains and flooding.
Vulnerable infants exposed to the climate are especially susceptible to respiratory infections, the flu, fever, and diarrhea.
Awash, a mother of four young children, who lives in a tent at 900 metres altitude in the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, wants to keep her children safe from the cold.
“My children got sick, and we took them to the medical unit”, says Awash. “We don’t have money to take them to the hospital, thank God the medical unit is good”.
Access to healthcare through mobile units and teams
Syrian refugees in tented settlements have limited access to public health care centres due to transportation and other costs.
To address this challenge, UNICEF has funded 21 Mobile Medical Units to provide refugees with free access to primary healthcare.
These roaming medical units that are set up in tents in each settlement, are supported by UNICEF, operated by the local NGO Beyond Association, and function with healthcare staff from the Ministry of Public Health, including a doctor, two nurses, a midwife, and a vaccinator.
An acute emergency
While these Mobile Medical Units have functioned for two years in Lebanon in response to the Syrian crisis, they have stepped up their interventions due to the winter storms.
“After the snow, and due to the storm, we are in an emergency,” said Dr. Zein El Din Saad from the Ministry of Public Health. “We were asked to go on the ground and help all the Syrian refugees.”
In one day, Dr. Eli Din Saad saw 95 patients in one tented settlement, most of whom were infants, children and mothers with upper respiratory tract infections.
Emergency Health Teams
In addition to the medial units, Emergency Health Teams consisting of a doctor and nurse were mobilized during the height of the largest storm this year.
Literally carrying a bucket of medications, a nurse assists a female doctor in going from one tent to another, tending to patients. As women, they are accepted into the tents, so there is no need to set up a separate tent to receive people.
“Patients have respiratory infections, bronchitis, tonsillitis, and diarrhea”, said Dr. Fatima Moussawi from the Ministry of Public Health. “For that reason our presence has been essential to avoid further complications.”
Access a challenge
The medical teams have braved the snow storms, despite being faced with challenges in accessing locations due to the snow, ice, and flooding.
“When the storm started, it was very difficult to get to the settlements,” said Dr. Moussawi referring to Zina that was one of the most violent storms in a decade. “It was snowing and there was no electricity; puddles of water could be seen inside and outside the tents.”
“The most important thing is that we arrived to the settlements at the right time,” said Dr. Moussawi with a smile.