By Miriam Azar
As severe winter weather makes living conditions for Syrian refugees even more difficult, health workers in Lebanon mobilize to provide critical assistance.
BEKAA VALLEY, Lebanon, 17 February 2015 – Removing her shoe, a Syrian woman dangles her foot over a small fire while her husband crouches and rubs his hands together. Nearby, clothes on a laundry line sway in the freezing wind, barely drying.
In this settlement of makeshift shelters in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Syrian refugees are trying to cope with the bitter winter. Over the last month, snowstorms, hurling winds, rains and flooding have forced already vulnerable people to fight for survival.
Infants and young children exposed to the climate and treacherous living conditions are especially susceptible to respiratory infections, flu, fever and diarrhea.
Living in a tent at 900 metres altitude here in eastern Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, Awash, mother of four young children, is trying to keep her children safe from the cold.
“My children got sick, and we took them to the medical unit,” she says. “We don’t have money to take them to the hospital. Thank God the medical unit is good.”
Syrian refugees in informal settlements have limited access to public health care centres, which for many are too far away and too expensive to reach.
To address this challenge, UNICEF has funded 21 mobile medical units to provide refugees free access to primary health care.
The roaming medical units, supported by UNICEF and operated by local NGO Beyond Association, are set up in tents in each settlement and are staffed by personnel from the Lebanese Ministry of Public Health, including a doctor, two nurses, a midwife and a vaccinator.
An acute emergency
The medical units have been operating for two years in Lebanon in response to the influx of Syrian refugees, now numbering more than 1.1 million registered.
With the recent severe weather, however, including Storm Zina in early January, one of the worst winter storms in decades, efforts have been intensified to reach refugee communities with critical medical assistance.
“After the snow, and due to the storm, we are in an emergency,” says 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.”
On just a single day, Dr. El Din Saad sees 95 patients in one tented settlement. Most of them are infants, children and mothers with upper respiratory tract infections.
Emergency health teams
In addition to the mobile units, emergency health teams consisting of a doctor and nurse have also been mobilized to make home visits.
Carrying a bucket full of medications, a nurse assists a female doctor going from one tent to the next, tending to patients. Because they are women, they are more easily welcomed into the tents, and there is less need to set up a separate medical station to receive people.
“Patients have respiratory infections, bronchitis, tonsillitis and diarrhea,” says Dr. Fatima Moussawi from the Ministry of Public Health. “For that reason, our presence has been essential to avoid further complications.”
Despite the challenges accessing locations, the health workers see the impact of their efforts.
“When the storm [Zina] started, it was very difficult to get to the settlements,” says Dr. Moussawi. “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,” she says.