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Medical misery

Ahmed al-Khalid

From Homs, Syria

now in Balamand, Lebanon

Left Syria June 2011

Ahmed al-Khalid lost his left eye to cancer before his first birthday.

He’s now nearly 2, and his mother is terrified that he is going to lose the other one.

They are Syrian refugees, forced to flee when their government’s planes dropped bombs on their house in Homs a year and a half ago. Now they live in a half-finished shopping mall in northern Lebanon, along with 1,000 other refugees who have sought shelter in shops that were built for selling clothes and shoes.

They are living on the generosity of the Lebanese government, plus the United Nations and private aid groups.

But U.N. and Lebanese officials, swamped with about a million refugees in a country with a population of 4.4 million, say they cannot afford to provide free health care for every sick refugee.

So Ahmed’s mother squeezes her baby tight and feels helpless.

Ahmed was 3 months old when a Syrian doctor diagnosed cancer, removed his left eye and replaced it with a prosthetic.

Around the same time, the family was forced to flee to Lebanon, where doctors said the boy needed chemotherapy. The cancer was in both eyes, and he would lose his right eye as well if he did not get treatment.

His mother says Lebanese doctors told her the chemotherapy would cost about $11,000 — an impossible sum. So she decided to take her chances with the war in Syria and take Ahmed to Damascus, where his treatment would be fully covered.

Ironically, the same government that bombed their home still provides free health care — although many doctors have fled, nearly 40 percent of Syrian hospitals have been destroyed and drugs are increasingly scarce.

Abeer, Ahmed’s mother, declines to give her last name, fearing that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s government could take retribution against her or her children during one of their medical visits to Syria.

Abeer has made several trips to Damascus, sleeping in the hospital with Ahmed while he went through the chemotherapy. She says the trips were dangerous, but she didn’t see any other option. Without treatment, the cancer would have spread and killed Ahmed.

“I would do anything for my children,” she says.

Doctors in Lebanon say Ahmed has been stable for several months, but he is still getting regular laser treatments in his right eye. Abeer says those treatments cost $66 each, which is being paid by a Lebanese charitable organization.

But she says just getting to the hospital, more than an hour’s drive away, is an expense she can barely afford. Ahmed’s father has a job helping to clean the abandoned shopping mall where they live. He is supposed to be paid about $260 a month. But that comes mainly from contributions from other refugees, who often can’t pay.

Even when he is paid, rent for their room is $225 a month, which leaves less than $40 for everything else. They receive help from the UNHCR and the Lebanese charity that helps with medical bills, but they are still short every month.

Ahmed is being treated at the American University of Beirut Medical Center, a highly respected private hospital.

Ghassan Skaf, the hospital’s chief of neurosurgery, says that, in theory, most of the refugees' medical bills are covered by the U.N. refugee agency, and the rest by private aid groups. But in practice, he says, the system is so swamped that bills go unpaid and the hospital covers the difference.

“Without major international support, I don’t think anybody could withstand this,” Skaf says. “We can do it for a month or two, but we can’t do it for years.”

U.N. officials say they try to meet the full demand, but the huge number of refugees makes it difficult.

Now Ahmed’s older brother, Mohammad, who is almost 4, is battling eye cancer, too. Doctors tell them it is not unusual for siblings to have the disease.

Abeer says Mohammad is also getting laser treatments paid for by the same Lebanese charity group. He has a patch over his stronger eye, which doctors say helps strengthen the weaker one. He wears a pair of blue plastic glasses that the doctor gave him.

Of the hundreds of kids playing in the shopping center, Mohammad is the only one wearing glasses. They are a luxury that refugees can’t afford.

Every day, about 3,000 Syrians leave the country.

Since you started reading, roughly ## Syrians have left the country.