Syria ER: Pregnant in War, A Growing Women's Health Crisis

Imagine being nine months pregnant, having your husband die and then having nowhere to go but another country where you have no access to health care or any services, unless you're very rich.

The U.N. was there, but they're but no longer giving fast-track registration to pregnant women. They stopped in April for financial reasons. They also stopped paying 100 percent of birth costs for refugees. So now these women have to come up with 25 percent of the cost of delivery. Where we were, for a normal delivery, that fee would be between $50 and $200 for a cesarean. That's a couple of days' work for a daily laborer, and they might get one to two days a week if they're lucky. So that's their wages for a week. And that's if you have a husband to do the daily work. If you don't have a husband, or resources, you have no money to have the baby.

There are still some Lebanese in the Bekaa who are helping out, but the Lebanese host population is already saturated. We met some Lebanese midwives who were helping Syrians give birth for free, but they are having to stop because they can't afford it anymore. Lack of access to information about services is also an issue. One woman we met was due to head back to Syria to give birth the following day, because she couldn't afford to give birth to the baby in Lebanon. So we were able to give her the right information to get her into the cheaper-delivery program, paying only 25 percent. If we hadn't met, she would not have known about how to access the service, and she would have had to cross back through a war zone to have the baby. We heard that a lot. Men saying to their wives, "We can't afford to give birth in Lebanon, we have to go back."

We were seeing quite a lot of newborns with problems. What happens is that moms and babies are discharged from the hospital immediately because they can't afford more days. Babies are coming in dehydrated because mothers didn't know how to breastfeed properly, or women switch to formula then can't afford more. In the first two months of opening women's health clinics, I thought we'd see 200 patients and we saw 850. It was quadruple what we expected. People in the Middle East tend to prefer obstetricians [to midwives], and we opened midwifery clinics, so we weren't sure how we'd be received. But the women came. And they talked about their problems, what they were going through.

The other women's health need that's high is contraception and family planning. There's a perception in Lebanon and the West that all Syrians want to do is have babies. I met so many women who said, "We are desperate for contraception in Syria, and we don't want to have more babies. We don't want to have them as refugees." The requests for family planning were more than in any other refugee setting I've ever been in. These were intelligent women saying, "We know it's not safe to have babies now in this setting." And they can't afford to buy contraception in Lebanon.

One woman had walked over the mountains with her children, and her first stop was us because she'd run out of her pill in Syria. She said, "I've run out. I'm crossing, I need it." But she was already pregnant.

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