Helping Syrian refugees

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Helping Syrian refugees

Half a million Syrians have escaped to Jordan. They are still fighting to survive. Nigel Wilson talks to Maha Alasil, an ordinary woman making an extraordinary effort to help those in need.

‘I just decided to go. Everyone told me not to, that it was too dangerous for a woman. I asked questions but didn’t find many answers, so I thought hallas – enough – and went.’

Ten months later, Maha Alasil remembers her first visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. That trip changed her life.

Maha has been a professional translator for most of her adult life. She had lived in Jordan’s capital, Amman, for a year when the Syrian uprising started in March 2011. In October last year, she started helping Syrians adapt to life as refugees. And she continues her translation work at night. She has helped many lives, by providing basics like diapers and clothes, or getting access to advanced medical assistance. She is a humanitarian activist.


(Nigel Wilson)

In October 2012, thousands of Syrians were leaving their country every day because of the civil war. Jordan had opened a refugee camp which was quickly getting much bigger.

‘Winter was coming and thousands of people were living in tents in the desert. It was my first visit to a refugee camp and I was shocked. I needed to return and help.’

Maha collected blankets from friends and family in Amman, and she gave them to people at the camp later that week.

‘I met more people the second time I visited. A young father, Ibrahim, had been in prison and tortured in Syria. He was depressed, sleeping most of the day and had back pain from the torture.’

At that time, there was only basic healthcare at the camp. The refugees were not allowed to leave without a Jordanian guarantor. Ibrahim left the camp in secret and travelled to Amman. And Maha took him to see Muawiya Abdeljaber, an orthopaedic specialist, who treated him free of charge.

Abdeljaber, who had worked as a surgeon with the British National Health Service, told Maha to bring him Syrian patients. He agreed to treat them for free or at a big discount. Ibrahim gave Maha’s phone number to other people who needed specialist care and her phone was soon ringing.

‘My second case, Yaman, had lost his leg in Syria. He’d received basic care at a hospital in Syria and was given a prosthetic leg, but he had a lot of pain. I took him to a specialist in prostheses.’

She got a discount, but this was still expensive. Maha sold two gold bracelets to pay for Yaman’s new leg.

‘I couldn’t disappoint him!’ she laughs, ‘but at the same time, I knew I couldn’t just sell all my possessions. I had to make my work sustainable, so I tried raising funds through Twitter.’ The Twitter plan has been successful so far. A woman in Oklahoma gave $2,000. A Saudi man donated $700. A Syrian man in the United Arab Emirates sent the same amount.

‘There’s a huge need in Jordan. I’m working with people across the country as well as the camp. I’ve got a long list of patients that need help, a three-year-old who needs plastic surgery, a boy with lung cancer and many families who will need to leave their homes.’

Housing rents in Jordan have gone up a lot over the past two years. Monthly rent has tripled in northern cities close to the border. And refugees aren’t allowed to work legally in Jordan, so many of them get a very small wage from informal work, or don’t work at all.

More than two million people have left Syria because of the conflict. 515,000 of them came to Jordan, according to a UNHCR estimate in August. The crisis is so big, it is too much for local and international NGOs. Most refugees cannot earn enough money, and they have used all their savings, so they don’t have money for specialist hospital treatment. Volunteers like Maha work very hard, raising money, as more is needed for each new refugee.

And Maha has a new project planned to help raise money: ‘I’m making a website to share the stories of refugees and their needs so that people can donate money. It’s terrible to meet so many people who have lost hope and direction. Their lives have been taken away from them and I just want the chance to make their futures better.’

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