Bringing in new life with Syrian refugees in Lebanon

MSF’s maternity unit in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut treats thousands of Syrian women who have fled the war across the border. (Photo: Diego Ibarra Sánchez)

MSF’s maternity unit in Shatila refugee camp in Beirut treats thousands of Syrian women who have fled the war across the border. (Photo: Diego Ibarra Sánchez)

MSF teams in Lebanon work to ensure healthy pregnancies and safe deliveries for thousands of Syrian refugees fleeing the war across the border.

“More than 30% of the babies being born in Lebanon today are Syrian,” says Zani Prinsloo, a South African midwife working with Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Lebanon.

Zani has spent the past nine months working at MSF’s women’s healthcare centres in two refugee camps in Beirut — Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh — which house vulnerable Lebanese nationals, as well as tens of thousands of Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

Since the beginning of the Syrian war in 2011, it is estimated that more than 1.4 million Syrian refugees and Palestinian refugees from Syria fled the conflict and arrived in Lebanon seeking safety. The small host country is still struggling to cope with their acute humanitarian and medical needs due to this huge influx.

Five years into the conflict, the situation remains volatile. Lebanon has a population of under 5 million, and the presence refugees is putting considerable strain on public services and is exacerbating tensions in the country.

Living conditions are precarious, with increasing numbers of refugees residing in informal tented settlements and unsuitable shelters. Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh are areas that have housed refugees for over 60 years, since the first Palestinians fled to safety across the border in 1948. Many refugees now fleeing Syria have ended up in these same camps.

As well as the health centres in Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh, MSF runs a primary healthcare clinic in Abde, north of Tripoli and a health centre in Wadi Khaled. The main concerns are access to primary and secondary healthcare, providing mothers with safe deliveries, mental health support services and helping people access medications for their chronic diseases.

In February 2016, MSF opened its third mother and child centre in Majdal Anjar, in central Bekaa, just a few kilometres away from the Syrian border, which caters to more than 15 000 women who otherwise have no access to free and safe delivery.

‘The MSF team was like a family to me’

MSF midwife Wesal says she still remembers the first baby born at the centre: “Her name was Ghazal. The team was very excited about opening of the centre and rejoiced when she was born; each one of us felt that Ghazal was our daughter.”

Ghazal’s mother Hansa, a young Syrian woman from Idlib, remembers the delivery well. “We arrived to the centre at around 4am; the medical team welcomed us warmly. I remember that the weather was cold, so they turned on the heat and started preparing me for labour.”

“My delivery was easy, thank God. I spent the next 24 hours after delivery with my daughter under the supervision of the medical team at the centre. They were like family to me, so I did not feel like a stranger despite the fact that my mother and family were still in Idlib.”

Majdal Anjar, considered one of the poorest regions in Lebanon, has hosted more than 80 000 Syrian refugees since the beginning of the Syrian crisis. Each month, MSF teams assist around 100 natural births at the centre. In the event of a caesarean delivery or other complications during childbirth, the medical teams are able to stabilise the patient’s condition before moving her to one of the referral hospitals in the region.

Hamida, a Syrian refugee who recently gave birth at the MSF mother and child care centre, says that these repeated visits to the centre during pregnancy were very important in her case. Throughout her prenatal stages, the midwife worked with a female gynaecologist to make sure that both she and the foetus were in good condition and that she would be able to deliver her son Khaled naturally at the centre.

“What touches me most is seeing women who are in dire need of assistance come to the centre to give birth and then leave satisfied and happy with our services,” says midwife Wesal.

Midwife Zani working in Beirut says the best part of her job is knowing she’s helping to provide quality care to women who would otherwise not have access to it.

“Women go home and are happy. People say thank you and come back. That’s the best part of the job for me. Even though we cannot do anything about a patient’s past, or do anything to assure they have a good future, we will always work to bring relief and help in the present,” she says.

“As a midwife in MSF, we are very autonomous and have decision-making power over a woman’s life, because in many contexts we are often the only health professionals around. But at the same time, we are very well supported and trained to be able to do our jobs. Being a midwife in MSF, you get to think for yourself and be independent, but you always have someone to count on — you are never alone.”

Find out more about MSF’s work in Lebanon: https://www.msf.org.za/about-us/where-we-work/lebanon