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Syria crisis: "How many more children…?"

Posted by Joelle Bassoul Media Advisor, Syria response

29th Mar 2016

Only 1.39 per cent of Syrian refugees a are resettled by rich countries. Joelle Bassoul shares the story of a family living in a suburb of Amman in Jordan, waiting to be resettled in the US.


The smell of cardamom-scented coffee fills the small, damp room in a suburb of Amman. Reema places the tray on the floor. "Ahlan wa sahlan!" (welcome) she says with a smile. Hospitality and warmth are the only things this Syrian refugee, her husband Abed, and their five children have left. Everything else was lost, the home they fled in 2013, the job he abandoned, the friends and neighbours they left behind, the country they saw falling apart.

Kneeling on the floor, in front of worn-out couches that sink in when I attempt to sit on them, Abed speaks softly. "We were surprised when we received the news. Our file is being reviewed at the US embassy. We might be resettled."

Next to him, four children giggle and play. The couple's only daughter is dressed in pink, her hair tied into neat plaits. She is getting ready to go to the nearby public school for afternoon classes. Her blue-eyed younger brother fiddles with a mobile phone while singing old tunes from Syria. But it's the other three siblings the parents worry about most. Two have minor eyesight and other health problems, and cradled in Reema's arms is one-year old Mohammad, who suffers from severe heart malfunction. At her feet, Abed spreads out the medical file. Pages and pages of tests, results, diagnoses and an impossible verdict: open heart surgery that starts at 10,000 Jordanian dinars (just under £10,000).

"Our only hope is the US"

"We were told he was very ill when he was two months old. Ever since, we've been in and out of hospitals. It costs a fortune, and the only solution is surgery. How will I ever be able to afford this? Our only hope is the US", says Abed, in his forties.

In the meantime, he's trying tirelessly to keep a roof on his family's head, working illegally at night in a coffee shop, and earning £220 a month. Half of it is sunk into the rent for his single bedroom flat with a tiny, windowless kitchen and a bathroom teeming with cockroaches.

"I'm hoping that if we go to the US, we will get a nice, clean house where the children can have more space," says Reema. By the fall of 2015, the family had gone for two appointments with US officials in Amman, the second just a few weeks before I visited them. "I was told that our file might be fast-tracked because of Mohammad (the US resettlement process can take up to 24 months). If not, we were promised to be sent to another country with a faster process," says Abed. He takes his son from his mother's arms, sits next to me, and removes the layers of clothes. The baby is small for his age. "Touch him," he tells me. Mohammad's heart pounds furiously and irregularly against my fingers as I lay the palm of my hand on his chest.

"At night, when everything is silent and we are all asleep, I can hear his heart beating, like a wall clock," says Reema, her eyes filled with sadness. "I hope help is on the way. You'll see, if you go to the US, they will give him the care he needs," I reply. Moments earlier, I was thumbing through pictures on my phone to show her my own healthy children. I don't know what else to tell her.

I visited the family on a cold, sunny Tuesday. On Sunday, Mohammad died. In the interim, we had tried to contact local medical organisations to see if he could have his surgery with no further delay in Jordan. On Monday, I got a call from a colleague: "Joelle, Mohammad is gone". I paused for a moment that felt like an eternity. Nothing mattered anymore. No embassy appointments, no medical files, no resettlement interviews. The world stopped when Mohammad's heart stopped, both losing a battle that could have been won.

And here we are watching rich countries debating whether Syrian refugees should be allowed in or not, whether they pose a security threat or are linked to terrorist groups. At Oxfam, we've been calling for the resettlement of 10 per cent of the nearly five million registered Syrian refugees. That means children like Mohammad, whose life hinged on medical care, fathers like Abed who work night shifts to provide their families with a roof, mothers like Reema who pray daily for their children to be safe and healthy. For all of them, the choice is: return to Syria and face death, or live in destitution in neighbouring countries. How many more children like Mohammad will die from preventable deaths if states do not open their doors and extend a merciful hand?


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Photo: Thomas Louapre. All names have been changed

Blog post written by Joelle Bassoul

Media Advisor, Syria response

More by Joelle Bassoul

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