Saturday, June 28, 2014

"My Country is Gone"

The bombings alone didn't force Anout and her family to flee their home in a small Syrian town near the border with Iraq. Nor did the missile attacks. Nor the scarcity of food, the closing of all the schools, the loss of electricity. Anout's family - two boys and three girls - endured all of it.

The breaking point came when the local factories, with electricity gone, began extracting petroleum improperly. The oil poured into the ground and the water supply. Anout's children became sick and suffered skin diseases. "The hospital was only a 30-minute walk. But it was so dangerous to travel there. It was dangerous to be outside anywhere," Anout explains. Indeed, children in the town hadn't been vaccinated for a year and a half - proper medicines weren't available and health workers had fled.

Finally six months ago, when her children became too sick and could not get medical care, Anout and her husband, who made a living as pomegranate farmers, decided the cumulative effect of constant violence and deprivation had become too much. They had to leave.

They fled to Beirut. But they struggle in their new environment, living with an additional family of five in a 2-bedroom apartment they cannot afford. Anout's husband is working as a building contractor. Their 15-year-old son Hamad works in a milk factory and has not been to school for more than a year.

Anout acknowledges that in Syria, "my children were panicked all the time. They were terrified." Certainly they are safer now. But when I ask what has happened to her village since she left, the question reduces her to tears.

"There have been massacres. In one, 70 people were killed. People cannot leave their homes at all," she says. "We cry for what has happened. My country is gone. It was the best life we had. We worked so hard to build something and now we don't have it. My boys are living in humiliation, working from 6am to 6 pm. When I see the youngsters of my country living this kind of life it tears me apart."

As Anout describes how much they have endured, how much they have lost, her 5-year-old son, Ibrahim, snuggles in close to her and begins to cry as well.

Since the war began in Syria in 2011, more than 160,000 people have been killed - though officials say they can no longer reliably calculate the death toll. Over 12 million people have been either displaced inside Syria or fled the country. An estimated 1.1 million poured into Lebanon - that's more than a quarter of Lebanon's total population of 4.2 million. The influx has created a massive strain, as Lebanese communities must absorb the additional people and share resources including food, water, shelter and medical services.

On this day, Hamad and Ibrahim are being treated at the St. Anthony clinic in the Jdeideh district of Beirut. This comprehensive primary health care facility is run by sisters Hanan and Georgette and supported by International Medical Corps, which provides all the medicines as well as health education and training.

Hamad has anemia, for which he is receiving iron. Ibrahim, in addition to having a low appetite and being very weak, continues to suffer from skin diseases and has large scars on his left arm.

Anout is thankful for the medical care, which she otherwise could not afford. And she tries to remain 

optimistic about the future. But any hope is tempered by sadness for what she has lost.

"God is testing our patience."

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Shield from the Storm

We walked through the debris field that was the coastal town of Hernani, in the Philippines, surveying the catastrophic damage wrought by Typhoon Haiyan - Yolanda as Filipinos call it. This was not just a typhoon of record proportions; it was a tsunami, annihilating everything in its path.

There seemed a tragically simple calculus to the storm's fury: homes made of bamboo were completely flattened, their flimsy tin roofs splayed on top of the fallen timber; concrete structures fared marginally better, walls still standing, but windows and doors completely blown out by the 195 mph winds.

Passing by a bright yellow, but badly damaged structure that read "Pedro E. Candido Memorial Library", we saw four teenagers sitting on a stone wall, horsing around, laughing.

I called out to one of them, a stunning girl with corn rows piled high on her head: "Hello. How are you? Are you alright?"
She replied: "Yes, I'm happy!"
"Happy?? Really??" I asked, incredulous given the devastation that surrounded her.
"Sure. I'm alive. My family's alive."

In village after village, island after island, a similar scene played out - people with sunny, smiling faces expressing happiness that they had survived, and profound gratitude to us for bringing the first medical relief these areas had received. This resilience was remarkable, and surprising in the aftermath of such an epic storm. Where does this resilience come from?

Like so many other villages, Hernani, a tight-knit community of about 8,000 in eastern Samar, suffered mightily in the typhoon. In addition to the widespread damage, 57 people perished and more than 500 were injured. Livelihoods, primarily fishing, were wiped out, as hundreds of boats were destroyed. Clean water, sanitation and food are all scarce.

It was not easy for us to reach Hernani. Road access was completely cut off. The only way we could get there was by Navy helicopter from an airfield in nearby Guiuan. When we touched down, hundreds of people swarmed us, eager to carry our medical supplies from the beachfront up a hill to a damaged municipal building next to the destroyed hospital.

Our International Medical Corps team, including long-time volunteer doctor from the U.S., Rob Fuller, and 4 Filipino doctors and nurses, quickly set up and within 10 minutes were treating the long line of patients - elderly people with wounds from flying debris, children with upper respiratory infections and skin infections from the unhygienic conditions.

In the short-term, through our mobile clinics, we've continued bringing medical relief to remote, hard-to-reach communities that might otherwise be missed. But the mayor of Hernani expressed a fear that we all have in the long-term: "I'm worried people will start to go hungry. People can't fish. We have no coconuts and bananas. I'm also worried the children will get diarrhea because there's no clean water and no working toilets. We can rebuild, but we need help."

The recovery from this disaster will be extremely difficult. Water and sanitation systems, health care, and livelihoods have all been decimated. But this country was fortunate in that the population is highly educated and it had a relatively strong infrastructure and disaster response capacity before the typhoon hit. Communities here came together, neighbors provided each other shelter, people felt an obligation to lift those next to them who might be more vulnerable.

Having witnessed first-hand communities ripped apart by natural disaster and conflict - from Syria, to Haiti, to the Congo - the resilience I've seen in the Philippines proves to be a powerful shield against any storm.

Back in Guiuan, where the typhoon first made landfall, and where more than 110 people died, Dr. Flores of the municipal hospital told me the story of a woman who gave birth, and three hours later, as the storm hit, took her baby into her arms and ran. That woman and her baby survived, living in an ambulance for four days before finding more permanent shelter with neighbors.

"This has been very hard for us," said Dr. Flores. "We thought we would never see the sun again. But we survived and we want to get back to work. You give us hope."