Your mother is not dead,” Ahmad Abdul Khader, crying helplessly, said to his son, his cracking voice a reflection of the timeworn mobile phone cradled in his recently calloused hands.
“Who told you such a thing, who?” As he spoke to 17-year-old Amjad, Ahmad was looking frantically around him as though hoping for an answer in the faces of hospital bystanders.
His composure and restraint dissipating, the 48-year-old father of four then tore into the adjacent room, a glass quarantine in which his wife Miriam Al Khouli was lying, her body completely bandaged, with slits left for her mouth and eyes. Struggling past nurses into the sterilised chamber and reaching the bed, he thrust the phone in her direction. “Speak to him,” he pleaded. “Tell your son you’re alive.”
But she was too sick to speak and he was ushered out by physicians. Looking out over the clustered sand-coloured high-rises as the call to prayer resonated through the crippled city, the father sighed.
“I sent my children to school today so they would have a sense of normalcy, to try to protect them from this,” he explains. “But other kids told them that on Facebook it says their mother is dead.”
Ahmad’s wife of 20 years Miriam, 42, is in a critical condition after having turned herself into a human ball of flames in a desperate cry of frustration and protest against recent cost-cutting measures by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) which saw 30 per cent of refugees deemed capable of self-subsidising being struck off aid lists.
“We never expected her to do this,” explains Ahmad, obviously pained as he talks about his wife. “But when the whole world closes its doors on you and there is not one single opening of hope left, sometimes there is nothing else left to do.
“Around six months ago we went to the registration centre and they told us it was the last time we would get help,” says Ahmad from the hospital’s cafeteria. “We asked why but no one had any answers. We continued going every 10 days, begging them to visit our house and see the conditions we are living in.
“We would walk for an hour-and-a-half to get there, and then we would wait in a long queue all day just to be turned away. Imagine walking and waiting in the winter’s cold until it’s almost night and they tell you that you can have nothing… and then you arrive home and see your children’s faces. What can you tell them?” he asks. “What would that do to you? Only a human being who lives like this would be able to understand and know why she was pushed to set herself on fire…
“She wasn’t trying to commit suicide. She just felt so oppressed because she felt like she was being told she didn’t deserve help.”
When asked if he is angry with his wife for increasing the already suffocating affliction on the family, he replies, “I have lived through exactly the same moments as my wife and I, too, have witnessed my children’s needs. I am not angry with her because I know what drove her to this and I would have done this myself had she not. This action, it’s not for me and it’s not for her but it is for our children because we just don’t know how to help them anymore.”
Miriam’s actions have for a few moments drawn international attention to the plight of Syrian refugees the region over, and her desperate cry for help is one that has not gone unnoticed by aid agencies on the ground.
The UNHCR, which is the main provider of assistance for refugees the world over, says it was forced to make the cutbacks due to critical funding needs.
“Seventy per cent of families in Lebanon continued to receive monthly assistance,” explains UNHCR spokesperson Joelle Eid. “They were found to be the most vulnerable; the other 30 per cent were excluded after they were visited by a committee and had a home visit. They were given the chance to appeal the decision and, out of those, 30 per cent were then re-included.”
“Miriam’s family were excluded from aid in 2013,” she continues, “but at the time she did not appeal so she was not visited by a protection team and not inspected at a closer level. She did, however, then approach our offices in Tripoli on a number of occasions to request assistance.”
“We referred her to our partners, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), who visited Miriam to check on her family’s overall situation. They were at the time provided with rent and financial assistance over two months. After this they were offered relocation to a collective centre [where many refugee families reside together] but the family refused for legitimate reasons. Due to their conservatism, they didn’t want their girls to be housed in a collective environment.”
And so, with four children – Ala, 19, Amjad,17, Aya,15, and Abdul Hadi, 13, – to feed, $200 (Dh730) a month rent to find for their room in the impoverished Bab Al Hadid district of Tripoli, northern Lebanon, and no hopes for employment in a city billed the ‘poorest on the Mediterranean’, Miriam found herself pushed to desperate measures.
Today, while she lies recovering under the white sheets of Tripoli’s L’hôpital de la Paix, bandages hiding her devastating injuries, Ahmad faces the arduous task of protecting his children from yet another horrific truth too burdensome for their years: What the future holds for their scorched and scarred mother.
“She is suffering from third-degree burns on 20 per cent of her body and the rest are deep second-degree burns,” explains the hospital director, Dr Gabriel Al Sabah, a man with 15 years’ experience of severe burn victims in Paris. “She responded well in the first 48 hours to treatment but now she will need to be hospitalised for at least two months so we can perform a skin transplant. Basically the patient does not have enough skin left on her body.” It is a fact that Ahmad wishes to keep from his children for the time being.
“I brought the three eldest here the day after it happened,” he says. “But I didn’t tell them everything. I told them that their mother was only burnt around her head and her arms. I didn’t want to scare them by telling them the truth, I will tell them all of that slowly. As for our youngest, Abdul Hadi, I left him at home. He is too young to see his mother like this.”
Like the one million refugees who have fled the crisis since it began over three years ago - 300,000 of whom have descended on Lebanon – Abdul Hadi and his siblings are yet more innocent victims of Syria’s relentless war.
These are children who in the past were well provided for, who led normal, healthy and happy lives but have since been forced to stop their education in order to work on construction sites for a few dollars.
Ahmad, who proudly sought to educate and improve the lives of his offspring back home in Homs, has refused to send them to work in Lebanon, instead begging and borrowing to keep them in school.
“I care about the future of my children,” he says, the pride clear in his voice. “My life is behind me, it is their turn and I want it to be better than this.”
Today their eldest daughter, Ala, is studying business at the University of Jinah in Tripoli on a scholarship she gained thanks to excellent academic grades. Their eldest son Amjad is attending a vocational school in the city training to be a mechanic, the fees of which have left Ahmad in debt, and the two youngest attend the free Imam school for refugees.
“I would pay with my blood to put them through school,” he says defiantly about an act that will ultimately save them from becoming a statistic in the so-called Lost Generation of refugee children, and an act that his wife has always fully supported. “Miriam loved educating her children,” he says, visibly moved. “She knew the classical form of Arabic and taught them how to read and write before they even entered school so they would be prepared…
“The first thing she said to me when she was able to speak again was ‘make sure the children keep going to school’.”
It is evident that the Abdul Kader family, like so many refugees displaced by their country’s increasingly sectarian war, are unaccustomed to the poverty in which they now find themselves.
Ahmad, who was previously the owner of a successful vegetable trading company in Syria, was forced to flee his homeland as the increasingly violent war waged on their doorstep. It was a move they did not want, but faced with the very real threat of death, they chose to leave their lives behind. One they had spent years putting together.
“We owned our entire building,’’ he says. “All the children had their own bedrooms. We could have rented out rooms to another two families but we didn’t need to. Now look what we have. Our situation in Syria or here is the same, we have nothing. We have no house, no car and no money. We have lost everything.”
The family fled their home after a highly publicised offensive. It was an attack by Syrian government forces that saw the city devastated by tanks, helicopters, rockets and mortars and, over the course of a few days, claimed 500 lives. “Everything around us was demolished,” recounts Ahmad. “The children were terrified and I rushed them all into the bathroom because it had the most shelter. I will never forget their white faces; they were just waiting to die.
“That night shells fell inside our home and parts of the house fell down around us. From 11pm until 6am we hid in there praying. That helped and we were saved because in the morning all of our neighbour’s homes had been destroyed but somehow ours was still standing. I knew there and then that I needed to get my family out.”
Under mild shelling and sniper threats, the family fled across the border into Qobbeh, an area on the outskirts of Tripoli, in the hope of finding a safer but temporary life.
Two years on, that move seems semi-permanent with no positive outcome in sight for either their fortune or that of their country.
With little hope for an end to the continuing complex crisis and with a recent death toll benchmark in Syria of 150,000 since it began back in 2011, the number of those fleeing the country is far from diminishing.
The UNHCR recently recorded its one millionth refugee registration in Lebanon alone, a reflection of the scale of the humanitarian crisis that has overwhelmed the country and overstretched aid agencies. With a critical lack of funding – the United Nations has estimated that $1.7 billion is needed to alleviate the impact of the crisis but so far pledges have been made for only 14 per cent of that amount – many refugees face the terrifying and very real prospect of being eliminated from essential donor handouts.
“Miriam’s case is a reminder to us all,” says UNHCR’s Joelle. “Of the level of desperation of the refugee community in Lebanon and a reminder of the consequence of this crisis on the refugees and Lebanon, a country that is so small and is already facing a lot of difficulty. We, along with the government, sounded the alarm on how difficult the situation is and how dire the need for international assistance is for both Syrian and Lebanese communities.”
For now Miriam has opened a window into the suffering of refugees eking out an existence in a land far from home and has reminded the world that the humanitarian consequence of this crisis has reached critical proportions.
Miriam will forever carry visible scars of her country’s tragic and tumultuous war, but also the visible reminders of a mother’s sacrifice. For Miriam ultimately only wants to save her children from a life of despair, children who with their education intact will crucially be capable of rebuilding their devastated country in a distant time when it will be safe to return.