Sitting at a desk, Bashir* ponders a basic puzzle of the human body. Trying to put together the face, the 12-year-old looks up eagerly at his teacher, Talha Al Ali, for reassurance. ‘You see how he puts the lips above the nose?’ says Talha quietly, after he helps Bashir complete the puzzle. ‘Sometimes he draws himself as a monster, or a face without ears. But I’m working with him, and I tell him, “no, you’re a hero”, and he likes that,’ says Talha.
There are many children like Bashir at the NGO hospital Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) in Amman, Jordan. Bashir has been at the hospital for five months now, and away from his home for two years, after a bomb exploded on his neighbour’s house in Daraa, Syria. The fire spread to his room while he and his brother were sleeping. They both managed to escape alive, but suffered third-degree burns. Bashir’s face is deeply scarred and disfigured, and he has lost the majority of both his ears. His is not an isolated case. Stories like these are common here, scattered around the hospital, the shadows of horror from war-torn countries.
The hospital was set up in 2006 in response to the high number of casualties from the Iraq War, and specialises in reconstructive surgery. Originally only intended for Iraqis, now 60 per cent of the patients are Syrian – after over 600,000 refugees poured into Jordan over the border since the Syrian war began in 2011 – with the remainder coming from Yemen and Gaza. Often the innocent victims of conflict, they are brought here by MSF and provided a caretaker. Sometimes staying for over a year, they are given food, shelter and counselling, while the necessary surgery and physiotherapy is carried out.
‘A lot of the children here have disfigured faces,’ says Hani Dweik, communications officer for MSF Amman, as we walk through the hospital hallways. There are patients of all ages here, huddling in small groups, some with missing limbs. ‘We do a lot of plastic surgery, trying to repair the face, to make it look like it used to. It will never be 100 per cent, of course.
‘It’s especially hard for the women here… a lot of them are psychologically damaged,’ says Hani. ‘They lose self-confidence, they lose hope, so the idea that there might be a chance that they can have back what they lost, or some of what they lost, just makes a huge difference.’
At the physiotherapy ward, patients are working on the movement of their arms post-surgery with their therapists. In a corner, a well-built young man with a full brown beard is making his way, slowly but determinedly with a Zimmer frame, towards parallel walking bars. It’s clear that he is in pain. His left leg has been replaced with a prosthetic one, and his right leg has been heavily operated on, metal braces still clamped on to the side of his thigh.
Moayad (top left) lost one leg and most of the other in Syria, but is able to walk again. Patients also undergo long-term rehabilitation in the hospital.
Before the Syrian war, Moayad Sroar, 29, had been studying law at Damascus University and was in his final year. ‘It was in December, 2014,’ he says to me as he takes a break from his daily physio. ‘We were engaging with the Syrian troops, I was covering my friends; actually we were retreating. I was standing next to a wall and suddenly it exploded, and I found myself on the ground. Both my legs were injured. There was a field hospital nearby and they bandaged me, and I was taken to the border, where I lost consciousness.
‘I remember everything,’ he says. My friends wrapped me in a blanket before taking me to hospital. There was no pain, it was warm, but when it got cold, the pain started. You expect everything. You expect to die.
‘When I woke up, I saw the amputation, I knew it was a bad injury, and I expected both my legs to be gone, but I saw one leg, so it was a good feeling actually.’
After being shuttled around various units in the country for seven months, Moayad was referred to the MSF hospital in Amman, where he was given a prosthetic leg and reconstructive surgery. ‘He had been operated on several times before he got here,’ says Dr Hanna Janho, 32, from Jordan. ‘But when he came to our hospital he had bone defect, about 15cm in the right femur with infection.
‘So I opened the injury, and cleaned the dead tissue; we took a biopsy to see the kind of bacteria, and at the same time we did some bone osteotomy [cutting of the bone] and transported a segment to fill the gap.’
It’s this specialist work that MSF staff like Dr Janho are providing – alongside the care, security and counselling given by other team members – that is really making a difference to the lives of those who have suffered so greatly from the tragedies of war.
‘A guy like Moayad, who lost a leg, with the other leg almost gone, you give them hope that one day he can have a normal life; that he can walk again,’ Hani says.
‘He would have been in a wheelchair for the rest of his life, so this is a glimpse of hope that these people can go on with their lives.’
Since its inauguration, the hospital has admitted over 3,700 patients and conducted over 8,238 surgeries, all financed by MSF donors. From the outside looking in, the scenes in the hospital could seem bleak, but in fact the atmosphere here is positive, the staff are bubbly heroes in white cloaks, and the patients are full of hope. One of the most poignant examples of this is the story of Raheem*, a nine-year-old Syrian boy who lost both his legs, one hand, and sight in one eye after a bomb exploded near where he was playing with his friends in Daraa, Syria.
‘I remember the first time I saw him, I couldn’t help but cry,’ says Hani. ‘I saw him outside, in a wheelchair. He was watching the other kids, and they were running and playing, and you could see this look of anger, resentment, sadness…’.
Withdrawn, aggressive and depressed, when he first arrived Raheem was severely affected. But with prosthetics and the emotional support from teacher Talha, Raheem’s belief and empowerment began to shine through. ‘After his prosthetic operations had been completed, I came to see him. He was walking along the parallel bar, and he said to Talha, “I want to go out, I want to keep walking’,’ remembers Hani. ‘So we went outside. It was so emotional. He’s a strong boy, and you could see that there was some pain, but he still wanted to walk, he wasn’t giving up, he wanted to keep going.’
It’s stories like these that define this hospital and what it was set up for; to bring smiles back to the faces of those that have seen the darkest of hours. For Bashir, Moayad, Raheem, and the thousands more who have been treated and cared for here, MSF has given them an enormous shot at a second chance.
Moayad says those days are waiting for him in Syria, and that his dream is to return as soon as possible.
‘My family are there, my friends are there, all of them are there. When I start to walk, I will go back home. I hope that will be soon, I’m dying to go to Syria.’
*Names have been changed.