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The Flagship

Sep 12
America Tonight

Photo essay: The uncounted Syrian tragedy

Syrian refugee child, amputated arm and leg
Syrian refugees arriving at Zaatari camp, northern Jordan at 2am.
Giles Duley / Handicap International

In Syria, the situation remains grim.

More than 100,000  have died in the country’s civil war, according to U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon.

Almost a third of Syrians have been displaced, more than two million as refugees. 

But one number that we don’t know -- and is likely overwhelming -- is the number of Syrians who now have disabilities.

“There is a huge ratio of injuries leading to amputation,” said Thierry-Mehdi Benlahsen, the regional emergency coordinator for Handicap International, who has spent the last year working mostly with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan. “A huge ratio of spinal cord injuries, generally related to gunshots or shellings. It’s approximately double of what we used to see in other crises. It’s a highly disabling crisis.”

Many wounded Syrians have no way of getting adequate care since the country’s health care system has been decimated. According to the humanitarian group Syrian American Medical Society, more than a third of hospitals have been destroyed and 57 percent of them damaged. Half of the nation’s doctors have fled, the group also claims, as have 70 percent of support staff. 

Morally and physically weakened, she has not stood up for nearly 8 months.

Since last summer, Handicap International has been helping victims of the conflict, and for a long time was the only aid organization doing such work. Handicap International is primarily providing mobility aids, such as wheelchairs and crutches, fitting prostheses for amputees, and offering psychological care and physical therapy. In refugees camps, where residents may have to walk miles every day for water, food and other aid, it’s critical work.

Some refugees are so traumatized that they resist care, Benlahsen said, often recoiling at the touch of a physical therapist.

“It’s particularly striking with children,” Benlahsen said. “Children who didn’t smile for the last two months, who don’t talk anymore, who are just thinking about what they will be facing in a matter of hours."

He added: “But when they get new smiles on their faces, when the amputated try to play football with the other children…their own coping mechanism. That’s something really rewarding to see.”

Here are a selection of photos of Handicap International personel working with displaced Syrians and refugees with disabilities. Photos and captions were provided by the organization. 

Syria refugee camp
Brice Blondel / Handicap International

Ten-year-old Rarad, who had her left leg amputated following the bombing of her home, stands in the front of the tent she occupies with her family in a displaced camp, Idlib Governorate, Syria.

Syrian child, partially paralyzed

A Handicap International physical therapist in Syria works with 12-year-old Maisa. The sniper bullet that killed her father also hit Maisa’s spine, leaving her partially paralyzed.

Syrian refugee
Layla Aerts / Handicap International

Omar, a Handicap International physical therapist, works with a young Syrian boy living in the Bekaa valley of Lebanon.

Syrian refugee camp
Gwenn Dubourthoumieu / Handicap International

Handicap International physical therapist Abeer, counsels Razala, an 80-year-old Syrian refugee, who lives with 19 members of her family in an unfinished building in the Beeka valley, eastern Lebanon. Morally and physically weakened, she has not stood up for nearly 8 months. This long period of immobilization caused her lower limbs to weaken significantly.

Syria refugee

7-year-old Ammar lost his right arm (above the elbow) and right leg (below the knee) when a shell hit the house where he and family were staying in Syria. After fleeing with his family to Jordan, Ammar received a prosthetic leg with the support of Handicap International. Here he performs exercises during a rehabilitation session with Maha, a handicap International physical therapist.

Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan
Gwenn Dubourthoumieu / Handicap International

Mohamed, a Handicap International physical therapist, comforts Fatima, a 75-year-old Syrian woman, during a rehabilitation session in the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. Because Fatima was not mobile enough to access the camp latrines, Handicap International also supplied her with a portable toilet chair. She and 15 members of her family fled to Jordan to escape the bombardment of Daraa, in the South of Syria.

Syrian refugee
Brice Blondel /Handicap International

Two refugees with amputations wait outside Handicap International’s rehabilitation center in Zaatari camp, Jordan.

Prosthetics and orthotics
Stuart Hughes / Handicap International

Technicians make prosthetics and orthotics for Handicap International beneficiaries at a workshop in Jordan.

Refugee camp in Jordan
Brice Blondel / Handicap International

In Jordan, Handicap International physical therapist Esraa does rehabilitation exercises with a man wounded by a gunshot to his leg.

Displaced camp in Syria

Displaced camp in Idlib Governorate, Syria, where  a Handicap International mobile team identifies injured people in need of support.

Refugee camp in Jordan
Gwenn Dubourthoumieu / Handicap International

Reem, an 8-year-old girl wounded during a bombardment in Syria, performs strengthening exercises at Handicap International’s rehabilitation center in Zaatari camp, Jordan. The organization also provided her with an orthopedic shoe to compensate for the loss of more than 2 cm of her left leg.



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