Syrians stuck between war and Turkish border

Transit Camp, A’zaz, SYRIA

“My wife will die if she doesn’t have heart surgery in three or four days,” Asad Hoammed lamented as he prepared tea in his UN refugee tent.  But getting the operation first requires getting her out of war-torn Syria and into a Turkish hospital that would somehow be willing to treat her for free.

It’s been more than a month since Mr. Hoammed and his wife left their hometown of Tall-Rifat seeking Turkish medical care, but having no money or passport to begin a new life outside Syria has made the crossing impossible.  Instead, they ended up in a refugee transit camp on the northern border with roughly 13,000 other Syrians waiting either to get into Turkey or for the war to end so they can go home and rebuild.  Most fled intense violence and shelling in and around Aleppo.

Asad Hoammed shows his wife's medical records and heart monitoring images.  She urgently needs valve surgery.

Asad Hoammed shows his wife’s medical records and heart monitoring images. She urgently needs valve surgery.  © Ben Taub 2013

The tea was still too hot to drink, so Mr. Hoammed lit a cigarette.  He took a slow drag as Syrian regime fighter jets bombed rebels laying siege to a military airport a few miles away.  The distant thundering rattled none and inspired a few prayers for those likely killed, but the proximity posed no risk.  Those few miles make a serious difference, as the transit camp is situated at the edge of Syria’s border with Turkey.  Any approaching jet would risk obliteration by Turkish air defenses.

Still, the transit camp isn’t a safe place to live.  “One person is sick in every tent,” insisted the men gathered on Mr. Hoammed’s tarp floor. They blamed it on dirty drinking water.

Dr. Al-Nasr, who works for a group called “Medical Relief for Syria,” acknowledged the spread of disease is a dire situation but disputed that refugees’ drinking water is tainted in any way.  “It’s a problem with sanitation, how to dispose of the bathing water and used toilet water,” he said.  “There are lakes of waste in some areas.”

Disposal of waste water is a problem, and a major source of disease in the transit camp.

Inadequate disposal of waste water is a major source of disease in the transit camp. © Ben Taub 2013

Most of the camp’s water and insect-linked health issues, such as diarrhea and scabies, are treatable.  But when addressing complex civilian health emergencies, there’s simply no good option in northern Syria.

According to Dr. Al-Nasr, Turkish authorities will grant access and free hospital care if failure to perform a major operation would have urgent and imminent consequences.  But how imminent is imminent?  Mr. Hoammed thinks his wife has just a few days left to live, and that any action now may be too little, too late.

He paused for a moment, then reached for a plastic bag hanging from the tent wall from which he produced a coin-purse full of pills and a small Chinese charm sent by a business contact in Beijing two years ago.  That was when his wife first fell ill.  “This charm is to protect her health,” wrote the Chinese businessman.

A Chinese business contact sent Asad Hoammed a small charm to preserve his wife's health.

A Chinese business contact sent Asad Hoammed a small charm to preserve his wife’s health.  It’s one of very few possessions he took to the camp.  © Ben Taub 2013

At that time, Mr. Hoammed worked in a weapons manufacturing facility for the Syrian government.  Soon after the war began, he defected and returned home to Tall Rifat.  His two sons picked up arms a few months later, Abdel with the Free Syrian Army and Hamoud with Jabhat al-Nusra, the well-trained Islamist faction that also hopes to take down the Syrian regime.

Mr. Hoammed hasn’t seen his sons since he and his ill wife arrived at the transit camp in late February.  Tonight he intends to plead his case to Turkish authorities and seek free crossing and heart surgery for the woman he has lived with and loved through war and peace.

Asad Hoammed enters his UN refugee tent, his home since fleeing Tall-Rifat late February.

Asad Hoammed enters his UN refugee tent, his home since fleeing Tall-Rifat late February. © Ben Taub 2013

UPDATE:  I went back to Syria the next day to check whether or not she was let into Turkey for the necessary heart surgery.  An FSA media contact said there’s a doctor who has agreed to see her on Sunday, April 7th.  If, indeed, that happens, it will be five days from Asad Hamoud’s initial interview, in which he estimated she has “three or four” days to live.

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