UNHCR's helping hand for pregnant refugees and others in need of care

News Stories, 18 March 2013

© UNHCR/G.Beals
Sixteen-year-old Iman cups her growing belly with her hands. She fled Syria when it became too dangerous and difficult to find food. The child, a girl, is due in a few weeks.

BEIRUT, Lebanon, March 18 (UNHCR) Amid the sadness of war there is good news for 16-year-old Syrian refugee, Iman.* Her baby lives.

The teenage mother fled her hometown of Dimniyet El Cham some three months ago when the shelling of her neighbourhood became too intense and food for herself and the baby in her belly was hard to come by. The pregnant Iman, with her 22-year-old husband and her parents, fled to the eastern Lebanon border town of Masnaa.

Her baby, a girl, is due in a few weeks time. Both Iman and the little one are doing just fine. "The doctor showed me the picture of the ultrasound," she says, sitting in an examining room in Beirut's Rafic Hariri Hospital. "I could see her heart beating. I want to name her Katr el Nada [the morning dew]."

Each week, UNHCR registers more than 10,000 refugees who have crossed the Syrian border into Lebanon. More than 75 per cent are women and children. The refugee agency, in support of the Lebanese government and with its partners, is working vigorously to provide primary health care, including antenatal treatment to women like Iman.

In partnership with the World Health Organization (WHO), the Public Health Ministry and others, UNHCR supports 18 clinics around the country in order to ensure that refugees have access to this care. UNHCR's emphasis is on both preventive and curative health care, especially for pregnant mothers and children. The agency supports services in areas such as antenatal care, immunization and psychological services.

UNHCR and its partners are also concerned about the need to vaccinate refugee children aged under 18 years. Lebanon's Public Health Ministry, WHO and the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) coordinate with UNHCR to include refugees in the countrywide immunization activities in schools and primary health care centres and through door-to-door outreach efforts.

Over the past few weeks, more than 180,000 Syrian and Lebanese children have been vaccinated for measles. Another 50,000 children aged five years or younger have been vaccinated against polio.

In accordance with the national health system, UNHCR covers the cost of consultations, including diagnostic services. The agency works to ensure that referrals for life-saving emergency care, including deliveries, are a top priority.

"Our goal is to ensure that every refugee has access to quality health care," says Alice Wimmer, UNHCR public health officer. "It's a tremendous undertaking but we believe that adequate health care is one of the most basic forms of protection."

The stress of war represents a particular complicating factor for many who have crossed the border into Lebanon. "We are getting a lot of obstetric complications," says Zulfikar Hashash, chief of the obstetrics and gynaecology department at Rafic Hariri Hospital. "There are quite a good number of these cases that are due to the conflict, displacement and the change of environment."

Nadia,* 35, sits in an examination room weeping. She is in her ninth month of pregnancy and her blood pressure often drops below normal levels. She has vaginal discharge, including blood in her urine. Her doctor in Damascus told her that the war could endanger her chances of having a safe delivery. "It's a stressful situation to see so many dead bodies on the street," she tells a hospital nurse.

The family went to the village of Maaloula, fleeing the shelling and violence. But Nadia says the conflict followed them. She lost a cousin when a combattant came to their house. When her relative tried to run, he was shot down. His body was then mutilated and dumped in a forest.

Ever since she departed for Lebanon in October of last year, Nadia has worried about her family. Her brothers are too sacred to attempt a border crossing. Communication is down in the village where her parents live and so she cannot speak with them. "I'm worried for my son's future," she says. "I don't know how I am going to take care of him."

* All names changed for protection reasons

By Greg Beals in Beirut, Lebanon

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UNHCR country pages

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

The UN refugee agency has named the British coordinator of a UN-run mine clearance programme in southern Lebanon and his civilian staff, including almost 1,000 Lebanese mine clearers, as the winners of the 2008 Nansen Refugee Award.

Christopher Clark, a former officer with the British armed forces, became manager of the UN Mine Action Coordination Centre-South Lebanon (UNMACC-SL) n 2003. His teams have detected and destroyed tons of unexploded ordnance (UXO) and tens of thousands of mines. This includes almost 145,000 submunitions (bomblets from cluster-bombs) found in southern Lebanon since the five-week war of mid-2006.

Their work helped enable the return home of almost 1 million Lebanese uprooted by the conflict. But there has been a cost – 13 mine clearers have been killed, while a further 38 have suffered cluster-bomb injuries since 2006. Southern Lebanon is once more thriving with life and industry, while the process of reconstruction continues apace thanks, in large part, to the work of the 2008 Nansen Award winners.

2008 Nansen Refugee Award

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UNHCR started distributing emergency relief aid in devastated southern Lebanese villages in the second half of August. Items such as tents, plastic sheeting and blankets are being distributed to the most vulnerable. UNHCR supplies are being taken from stockpiles in Beirut, Sidon and Tyre and continue to arrive in Lebanon by air, sea and road.

Although 90 percent of the displaced returned within days of the August 14 ceasefire, many Lebanese have been unable to move back into their homes and have been staying with family or in shelters, while a few thousand have remained in Syria.

Since the crisis began in mid-July, UNHCR has moved 1,553 tons of supplies into Syria and Lebanon for the victims of the fighting. That has included nearly 15,000 tents, 154,510 blankets, 53,633 mattresses and 13,474 kitchen sets. The refugee agency has imported five trucks and 15 more are en route.

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