The human side of war and refugee camps

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With the education we receive here at Cal, we are becoming better equipped to help alleviate the health crises affecting those less fortunate than us, such as refugees around the world. Therefore, we must all refuse to become inured to current health conditions around the world and work together to deliver health care to those who need it most.

In Al-Husn Refugee Camp in Jordan, through daily, unrestrained, impetuous episodes, Dabbos, 22, leaves his makeshift home to destroy everything in sight. He does this during his one hour of freedom, before and after which he is not allowed to set foot outside of his house, where a steel chain tenaciously holds him to the ground, restricting his mobility.

In first grade, Dabbos had a specific task every night: before he and his siblings went to bed, he would read aloud to his family from one of the Arabic books stacked at home. At the age of five and a half, Dabbos not only read in Arabic but was also beginning to read in English. As far as his mother was concerned, this made him the smartest little boy in the camp.

A few months before Dabbos turned 6, he fell and hit his head while playing soccer with his neighbors. The mother remembers only rushing to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency clinic amid tears and prayers. An hour later, Dabbos was diagnosed with epilepsy. In turn, his mother was given instructions pertaining to her son’s newly prescribed medications: more than 2,600 mg of various antipsychotic and anticonvulsant medications every single day. That night, Dabbos futilely attempted to fulfill his task of reading. He was not able to do so successfully, as he now suffered from a total reduction of spoken and written language. Dabbos has not read a word since the day of the incident.

And so prayer supplanted storytelling in their house. Convinced that Dabbos’ condition suggested a demonic etiology, the family prayed incessantly in an attempt to rid Dabbos of the evil spirits inside of him. With time, however, his condition only became worse. Dabbos became unrecognizable, self-destructive and especially violent. When dressed, Dabbos would rip apart all of his clothes within a few minutes. When physically approached, Dabbos would punch and slap anyone indiscriminately. When left alone at night, Dabbos would vociferate unintelligibly until a family member approached him, which they stopped doing after it became clear that approaching him led to attack attempts. As a direct response to his sharp rise in belligerence — and in order to protect herself, her family and the neighborhood — Dabbos’ mother decided to chain him to the wall.

After his one hour of freedom is over, at roughly 3 p.m., Dabbos’ mother brings together a group of six adult men to look for him and bring him back to where he will be chained. His father does not join the men. Dabbos fractured his father’s spine years ago.

Instead, Dabbos’ father remains at home and calls psychiatric hospitals to see whether they will take in his son; he has not had any luck so far. Dabbos has been rejected from all wards for being “too violent.” And even if he were approved for institutionalization, the family would not able to cover the expenses. Still, every day, as soon as Dabbos is set free, the father picks up the phone and calls. Hopefully today will be different.

Dabbos’ story illustrates a larger hidden health crisis among Palestinian refugees. His parents were among more than 12,500 refugees who were displaced from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Six-Day War and subsequently settled in Al-Husn Camp. There, they were granted temporary passports from the Jordanian government, limiting their access to governmental services. One such service is government-funded health care.

Fortunately, refugees are able to visit the UNRWA Clinic, which offers health services to refugees free of charge. That said, it is important to note that there are only two practicing physicians — a gynecologist and a pediatrician — at the UNRWA Clinic, which is open only until 2 p.m. every day. That is absolutely egregious, granted that Al-Husn accommodates more than 55,000 refugees, an outstanding number of whom suffer from various physical and mental health issues. Considering the majority of the refugees live below the poverty line in Jordan, it seems ludicrous to suggest they can afford to pay for the health services offered in the camp for a fee.

Al-Husn Camp is only one of 10 Palestinian refugee camps in Jordan, with nearly 370,000 Palestinian refugees. Palestinians are only one refugee population in Jordan. Iraqi and, more recently, Syrian populations grapple with similar deplorable conditions.

As the rest of the world focuses on U.N. resolutions, statistics and the opposing sides of the conflicts, we must not forget the humanity behind these concepts. We must refuse to become desensitized to the refugees’ daily struggles long after they leave their war-torn countries. We must also recognize that it is our duty to use the education we receive to try to alleviate their pain.

When asked about her life as a refugee, Dabbos’ mother said, “There is a saddening story behind every door in a refugee camp. But what are we to do? This is our fate.”

Laila Soudi is a senior at UC Berkeley and the co-founder & president of Students Supporting Doctors Without Borders. Email her at [email protected] for more information.

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