By Alexis Masciarelli
ZA’ATARI, Jordan, 28 February 2013 – Um Ahmed* did not want to leave, but the bombs forced her.
She, her husband and their four children abandoned their home in a village in the southern Syrian Arab Republic. They walked for several hours in the desert to the Jordanian border. Fellow villagers helped carry their few belongings.
Um Ahmed was already carrying a delicate weight, herself. She was seven months pregnant when she hit the road and became a refugee.
Birth in a refugee camp
When Um Ahmed arrived in Jordan, she was so exhausted and weak that it seemed possible she and the baby were at risk. She was referred to the hospital in Mafraq, the nearest town, to recover from an ordeal that no one would want to go through, let alone a heavily pregnant woman.
On 26 December, after having been reunited with her family in the Za’atari refugee camp, Um Ahmed gave birth in a field hospital managed by Moroccan army doctors. “When the baby was born, my husband asked the doctor: ‘Is it a boy or a girl?’” she recalls, as she receives us in her tent. “He replied that it was a ‘saqer’ [eagle]! A strong baby boy! That’s how we named him.”
Every day, an average of eight children are born as refugees in Za’atari, the largest camp of the Syrian crisis, located approximately 12 km from the border. It has become home to tens of thousands of Syrians.
Despite the distress of fleeing her home, and her new life as a refugee, Um Ahmed remembers Saqer’s birth in the best possible way. “I now have five children, and I can tell you that it was the best delivery I have had so far,” she says. “[T]he doctors were very nice. They looked after me for three days, asking me how I was feeling, really supporting me all the time.”
Since her delivery, Um Ahmed has been visited each week in her tent by counsellors of the infant and young child feeding programme implemented by UNICEF in partnership with Save the Children Jordan. They check if babies are eating well and encourage mothers to exclusively breastfeed their babies until they are 6 months old. Should a medical problem arise, they advise the mother to see a paediatrician.
Meeting increased pressure
Unfortunately, there is not enough capacity to follow up tent to tent with all of the women. With the 59,940 people who have arrived since 1 February in Za’atari, according to United Nations figures, pressure is growing on the response that UNICEF and other agencies are able to provide to the mothers of Za’atari and their young children.
“There is a tremendous increase in the number of refugees who are accessing health services in the camp, including pregnant women and young mothers,” says UNICEF Representative in Jordan Dominique Hyde. “Our duty is to respond to these demands. At the moment, we are targeting 90 per cent of the pregnant and breastfeeding women in the camp, and we are planning to extend our activities outside Za’atari, to those in the host communities.”
The French hospital located at the entrance of the camp is running at full capacity, with vaccination and emergency surgery. A large tent run by Gynécologues Sans Frontières has also been designed as a maternity centre. Before leaving the hospital, a new mother will receive kits donated by UNICEF containing baby clothes, soap, nappies and even a baby cot.
Concern over teenage mothers
Health workers are particularly concerned at the high number of Syrian teenage girls, as young as 14, who arrive pregnant and give birth in the camp. Traditional early marriages – and giving birth at a young age – can cause long-term health problems for young mothers.
“We have a serious situation, because these girls have not finished their growth,” says UNICEF Jordan Health and Nutrition Specialist Dr. Carine Boyce. “Apart from the obvious psychological aspect, they often do not yet have the nutritional reserve that a pregnancy requires. The foetus will dig in the girls’ reserves, putting them at risk of anaemia. The babies, themselves, are often born premature and underweight.”
“I hope that we will be back home”
Back in Um Ahmed’s tent, baby Saqer gazes quietly at his brother and sister, aged 2 and 3, who hold him on their laps. Um Ahmed’s husband is serving coffee to the visitors.
“You know,” she says, with a quirky smile, “the counsellor who visits me said that, while I breastfeed my child, I am less likely to fall pregnant. My husband is fine with it. We can wait another two years before we have another baby. I hope that we will be back home by then!”
*Name has been changed.