First Person

A family in limbo, a preventable death

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Abed with one of his sons in their small Amman flat. The Syrian refugee works illegally to pay rent, while he awaits resettlement to the US. He lost the youngest of his five children who suffered from a heart condition and passed away in Jordan where he couldn't get the required medical help. Photo: Thomas Louapre

After fleeing violence in Syria, a young son dies as a family waits for resettlement and medical care.

Joelle Bassoul is Oxfam’s media advisor based in Beirut, Lebanon.

The smell of cardamom-scented coffee fills the small, damp room in a suburb of Amman. Reema places a tray on the floor. “Ahlan wa sahlan!” (welcome) she says with a smile.

Hospitality and warmth are the only things this Syrian refugee, her husband Abed, and their five children have left. Everything else was lost: the home they fled in 2013, the job he abandoned, the friends and neighbours they left behind, the country they saw falling apart.

Kneeling on the floor, in front of worn-out couches that sink in when I sit on them, Abed speaks softly. “We were surprised when we received the news. Our file is being reviewed at the US embassy. We might be resettled.”

Next to him, four children giggle and play. The couple’s only daughter is dressed in pink, her hair tied into neat plaits. She is getting ready to go to the nearby public school for afternoon classes. Her blue-eyed younger brother fiddles with a mobile phone while singing old tunes from Syria. But it’s the other three siblings the parents worry about most. Two have minor eyesight and other health problems, and cradled in Reema’s arms is one-year old Mohammad, who suffers from severe heart malfunction. At her feet, Abed spreads out the medical file. Pages and pages of tests, results, diagnoses and an impossible verdict: open heart surgery that starts at 10,000 Jordanian dinars ($US14,000).

“We were told he was very ill when he was two months old. Ever since, we’ve been in and out of hospitals. It costs a fortune, and the only solution is surgery. How will I ever be able to afford this? Our only hope is the US,” says Abed.

In the meantime, he’s trying tirelessly to keep a roof on his family’s head, working illegally at night in a coffee shop, and earning $US310 a month. Half of it is sunk into the rent for his single bedroom flat with a tiny, windowless kitchen and a bathroom teeming with cockroaches.

“I’m hoping that if we go to the US, we will get a nice, clean house where the children can have more space,” says Reema. By the fall of 2015, the family had gone for two appointments with US officials in Amman, the second just a few weeks before I visited them. “I was told that our file might be fast-tracked because of Mohammad. If not, we were promised to be sent to another country with a faster process,” says Abed. (US resettlement process can take 24 months.)

He takes his son from his mother’s arms, sits next to me, and removes the layers of clothes. The baby is small for his age. “Touch him,” he tells me. Mohammad’s heart pounds furiously and irregularly against my fingers as I lay the palm of my hand on his chest.

“At night, when everything is silent and we are all asleep, I can hear his heart beating, like a wall clock,” says Reema, her eyes filled with sadness.

“I hope help is on the way. You’ll see, if you go to the US, they will give him the care he needs,” I reply. Moments earlier, I was thumbing through pictures on my phone to show her my own healthy children. I don’t know what else to tell her.

I visited the family on a cold, sunny Tuesday. On Sunday, Mohammad died. In the interim, we had tried to contact local medical organizations to see if he could have his surgery with no further delay in Jordan. On Monday, I got a call from a colleague: “Joelle, Mohammad is gone.” I paused for a moment that felt like an eternity. Nothing mattered anymore. No embassy appointments, no medical files, no resettlement interviews. The world stopped when Mohammad’s heart stopped, both losing a battle that could have been won.

And here we are watching rich countries debating whether Syrian refugees should be allowed in or not, whether they pose a security threat or are linked to terrorist groups. At Oxfam, we’ve been calling for the resettlement of 10 percent of the nearly five million registered Syrian refugees. That means children like Mohammad, whose life hinged on medical care, fathers like Abed who work night shifts to provide their families with a roof, mothers like Reema who pray daily for their children to be safe and healthy. For all of them, the choice is to return to Syria and face death, or live in destitution in neighboring countries. How many more children like Mohammad will die from preventable deaths if countries do not open their doors and extend a merciful hand?

All the names of the people in this post have been changed.

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