On the frontline of the Syrian refugee crisis

September 26, 2013
by 
Kelly Di Domenico, Communications Officer

Caritas Lebanon, with support from Development and Peace and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development (DFATD), is providing much-needed medical services to Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The organisation is running health clinics that provide services to refugees who do not live in camps, an oft-forgotten group, as well as to other vulnerable groups in Lebanon, such as host families, whose resources are strained by the added members to their household.

Here is an interview with Dr. Rita Rhayem, Chief of Medical Services at Caritas Lebanon, who is on the frontlines of this crisis. 

What are the most common health problems that you see in the clinics?

At the Caritas clinics, we are mainly looking after chronic and/or severe illnesses. The majority of children are suffering from issues related to their perilous living conditions (unhygienic environment, poor lighting, bad air circulation, unhealthy drinking water, poor drainage of dirty water, etc.). They have gastro-intestinal problems, especially diarrhea, stunted growth and dermatological problems like scabies and leishmaniasis, which is a disease caused by sand flies.

Most of the pregnant women in the last term of their pregnancy that are coming to our centre for the first time haven’t been followed by a gynecologist and have never had an ultrasound. And we can’t forget chronic illnesses, especially diabetes and hypertension. It is imperative to not interrupt treatment for these types of illnesses and there needs to be close follow-up.

Is there a risk that the health of the refugees will deteriorate?

Definitely, especially if we see an increase in the number of refugees. Already, the healthcare system in Lebanon is strained from the demand, and many locals do not have the means to access health services. So, imagine what it will be like if there is an increase in the number of refugees coupled with a decrease in international funds allocated to humanitarian aid. In addition, refugees are concentrated either in camps or in spaces they rent such as small rooms, garages, warehouses, etc., where there are often several families living together. This type of living situation favours the spread of transmittable diseases and presents challenges for hygiene and sanitation.

As well, we need to prepare for the winter season, which with the cold and overcrowded living conditions, will favour the spread of infections and transmittable diseases.

What are the greatest needs at the moment and do you see certain needs growing?

The medical services that are being funded by Development and Peace and the Canadian government are for primary healthcare services: nursing, pediatric and gynecological consultations, administering medications and vaccinations, etc. But there is the increasing need for laboratory exams that are required to make certain diagnoses and to monitor chronic illnesses. Also, there is an increased need for psychological and even psychiatric support.

What is the condition of refugees when they arrive in Lebanon?

Psychosocial services are now being offered at our primary care centre in Rayfoun. The psychologist there is witnessing cases of severe depression, anxiety and reactionary aggression. Children are traumatized and live in constant fear. They have a strong reaction to the slightest noise and are afraid to be left alone. Doctors are even noticing an increase in the number of psychosomatic cases among both child and adult refugees.

What is the biggest challenge in your work?

The biggest challenge is to be able to respond to the growing needs of refugees while continuing to provide our regular services. Caritas Lebanon's medical service ensures medical aid to all those in need, without distinction, at our 10 primary care centres and our 9 mobile clinics. By launching the medical assistance program for Syrian refugees, the team is under constant pressure. There are days where the number of consultations reaches over 100 people with all types of cases. And we can’t forget that there are also occasional emergencies that we have to provide treatment for.

Similarly, the mobile clinics operate in equally gruelling conditions. Every day, the teams visit refugees who are in isolated regions such as the plains of Bekaa. They face insecurities on the road and very challenging work, all in a very hazardous climate.

What impact would a military intervention in Syria have on your medical services?

A military intervention would definitely increase the number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon, which will put all local aid organizations under enormous pressure. This would be the case for Caritas Lebanon, especially for centres close to the border. With the lack of funding, it will be impossible to continue helping refugees to the same extent.

Every day, we are facing new problems. Yet these medical services are essential because they have positive repercussions for everyone. If there were to be an epidemic of a disease, it would affect anyone in Lebanon, without distinction.

Sometimes, it is difficult for Canadians to understand the situation in Syria and that of the refugees. What is one thing that you would like Canadians to know?

The influx of Syrian refugees has only further complicated the existing difficulties here in Lebanon on all levels - economic, social, medical and demographic, which have all been exacerbated by the unstable political situation.

We greatly appreciate the support that we are receiving from Canada for this important program.

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