The secret clinic – how Syrian refugees are taking healthcare into their own hands
Inside are two small rooms, one of which holds several rows of shelves that are stocked with medicine. A refrigerator keeps a stock of insulin cool. There is also an oxygen tank respirator and several other pieces of basic medical equipment. © Katie McQue
The secret clinic – how Syrian refugees are taking healthcare into their own hands
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Katie McQue & Nicole Tovstiga
Last updated: October 28, 2013

The secret clinic – how Syrian refugees are taking healthcare into their own hands

Banner Icon Syrian refugees have become so frustrated with the scarcity of medical care at the Zaatari refugee camp that they have set up their own clinics, which are kept secret from the organisations running the camp.

“We don’t want our faces on camera. This isn’t part of the government system. We don’t want to get anybody into trouble,” says Hamza, the clinic manager, who asked for his second name not to be used.

Hamza was a pharmacist by profession in Syria. With a handful of fellow citizens of the southern city of Deraa, he opened the clinic to distribute medication free-of-charge to those living at Zaatari. They buy the medicines from wherever in Jordan they can get hold of them, he says.

Zaatari is now a year old. What was a small camp is now a sprawling tent city in the desert, housing 150.000 Syrians. Sanitation is poor, resources are scarce and refugees are acting to provide their own healthcare.

The makeshift clinic is hidden among rows of prefab white-coloured caravans that were donated by Saudi Arabia for people to live in. He gives a tour of the clinic with a sense of pride.

“We don’t want to call it a hospital; it is just a small place for people to come if they are not very well”

Inside are two small rooms, one of which holds several rows of shelves that are stocked with medicine. A refrigerator keeps a stock of insulin cool. There is also an oxygen tank respirator and several other pieces of basic medical equipment.

“We don’t want to call it a hospital; it is just a small place for people to come if they are not very well,” he says. “The other hospitals have a big shortage of medicine.”

He lists diabetes, high blood pressure, kidney problems and skin infections as the most common afflictions they deal with. They also run another clinic, which specialises in treating gun-shot wounds and other injuries of combat.

One person who has recently been treated at the clinic is a 15-year old boy named Hamad Agali, who needed antibiotics to treat an infection.

“I got ill from drinking the water,” he explains. “I threw up, and I had dirty breath with mucous in it.”

Contaminated water supplies are a breeding ground of sickness at Zaatari. Water is brought in by tanker lorries and deposited into large storage vats that are dotted around the camp. Some of these vats contain water that is designated suitable only for washing, others dispense drinking water. Some of the refugees regard both types as unsafe, claiming the drinking water is causing kidney problems and vomiting bugs. The few who can afford instead buy bottled water. Although to a thirsty child playing in the searing mid-summer heat, any water is precious, regardless of its cleanliness.

Another problem is women’s health. Due to cultural sensitivities women will not see male doctors and a lack of female medical professionals means their health often goes unchecked.

At Hamza’s clinic there is a female doctor who visits about once a week.

“We do bring in a Syrian female doctor, but sometimes it takes a while so women get sick. So for women especially, it is tough,” he says. “In one day the female doctor has to see 50 people.”

Some of the official medical staff working at Zaatari’s agency-run hospitals, however, disagree there is a shortage of medical care.

“People sometimes think they need medication when they don’t. In those cases they are unhappy when we don’t give them any. That is why there are complaints,” says Majed Bawaneh, manager of a clinic run jointly by the Jordan Health Aid Society and the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).

Still, Bawaneh does concede there had been shortages of basic medicines in the past, and there are currently no resources to treat cancers and other terminal illnesses.

But with the camp stretched to capacity, now housing over 150.000 Syrians, it seems hard to imagine that its whole population would agree. People are desperate. Lives have been needlessly cut short.

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“Children die here because they don’t get medicine. All the organisations that come, they are just pen and paper, they don’t bring medicine,” said Manal Masalmeh, a widow who fled Deraa with her family, including a newborn baby grandson.

Like other commodities in short-supply at Zaatari, medicines are becoming increasingly expensive, further inhibiting the refugees’ capability to stay healthy.

“If medicines get cheaper, a lot of the problems would be much better. A lot of people are dying because of this,” adds Hamza.

“So many people are sick because of the atmosphere and water. There’s just too much sickness, it’s over-whelming.”

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