Middle East

04.17.12

Pregnant Women Flee Syria

Continued shelling and fighting in Syria, and the closure of hospitals, are driving even pregnant women to flee the country. By Sophia Jones and Erin Banco

Ghida held her pregnant belly as the earth shook from the shelling by the Syrian Armed Forces. Around her, hundreds of Syrians were fleeing the village of Janodiyeh, their eyes fixed on the Turkish border ahead.

Eight months pregnant, Ghida hurried along, following the smuggler with her husband and wary of hidden land mines. She felt her body pulse with terror, and then, a different feeling—one a mother knows all too well.

In the chaos of the fighting and her family’s flight, Ghida knew: her baby was coming. And there, beneath the trees, shielded by the fabric held up by other refugees and holding the hand of a stranger, Ghida gave birth to her son, Ibrahim, born halfway between Syria and Turkey.

With ongoing insecurity and fighting in Syria, and the closure of hospitals there, many pregnant women have chosen to flee across the border to Turkey, even if it’s a perilous journey.  

Hisham Jerji, holding his 7-month-old daughter, Amina, who was born in the Yayladagi camp in Hatay province, expressed how grateful he was that his wife gave birth in the camp and not in Jisr Al-Shughour. “The government closed all the hospitals and there were no doctors,” he said, a situation worsened by the relentless attack on their city by Syrian Armed Forces, which drove him and his then-pregnant wife to flee to Turkey. He is planning on joining the rebel army in Syria soon, leaving his wife and child in the camp. “It’s difficult, but what do we do?” 

Eighteen-year-old Afra Jrekuf gave birth one month ago while living in the Yayladagi camp. She fled to Turkey when she was three months pregnant because she was wanted by the Assad regime for having information against them. She and her husband will not go back to Syria—they want to raise their child in Turkey instead. She said she feels lucky to be out of Syria, even though they have no way of working to support their child. 

Video screenshot

Former Assistant Secretary of State Jamie Rubin on ‘chaos’ in Syria.

Afra will attempt to apply for asylum through the U.N., a process that often takes months to complete and is rarely granted to Syrians who are fleeing the conflict. Babies born to refugee parents in Turkey are not Turkish citizens, nor are they actually refugees. According to Turkish law, Syrians who cross into Turkey are “guests” and do not have the benefits of refugee status.   

Afra’s entire family is still in Syria, and apart from the help of her husband, she is raising her child alone when she would normally have the support of her entire extended family back home. Following the birth of her child, camp officials gave her milk and what she described as a chamber pot. She said she feels that the situation in the camps is dangerous for her baby’s life, especially since, according to Afra and other refugees inside the camps, they are not given enough food. “It’s horrible,” she said.  

Her baby is in good health now, but after she gave birth, Afra had a stomach infection for a week and couldn’t get medicine because the hospital lost her paperwork. She also said that while she was still pregnant, she wasn’t always given permission to leave the camp and go to the hospital for a checkup. After giving birth in the hospital, her husband was allowed to see her for only five minutes. Afra was alone for three days. “All the nurses, except for one, didn’t care about me,” she said. She feared that it was because she is Sunni, while most of the hospital staff is Alawite.  

Ghida faced a similar situation once arriving at the Yayladagi camp after giving birth to Ibrahim on the border. Amidst the chaos of the refugee camp, which had recently opened, she had to wait a week before getting permission to go to a hospital. She feared for the life of her child, even on Turkish soil, away from the relentless shelling of Assad’s tanks.

A hospital in Hatay, who asked to keep their name disclosed as the Turkish government forbids interaction with press, has admitted around 6,000 Syrian refugees, and 50 women who gave birth in the hospital since mid-June. Hospital staff claims that refugees in the camps are content and that their situation is better than back home in Syria. And contrary to what many of the refugees have said, doctors insist that refugees in the camps are allowed to visit the hospital at any time.  

Ghida and Afra’s stories are shared by scores of women inside the refugee camps. A U.S. doctor volunteering in Turkey confirmed that there was indeed negligence within the Turkish hospitals. She also said she heard of refugees receiving preferential medical treatment, including $10,000 in vitro surgeries paid for by the Turkish government, as well as other nonessential surgeries. In a culture that emphasizes the importance of having children, men and women are taking the opportunity to complete their families. But others are left to start their families from within Turkish refugee camps.   

Even though the lives of many young Syrians have been dramatically interrupted, many are choosing to get married and start a family with only a tent to call home. “I want to make a family,” said Mohamed Al-Hur, a former FSA soldier wanted by the Assad regime. He met his wife two months ago in the Yayladagi camp, where he has already lived for a year. The uncertainty of an endpoint to the conflict made him eager to truly “complete his religion,” as he said, and get married. In late March he went to the tent of a sheik in the camp and verified his marriage, hardly the traditionally extravagant marriage celebration he would normally have back in Syria. Mohamed and his wife won’t be legally married until they formally register in Syria. They hope to move back someday soon, as husband and wife. But until then, they are living in the cramped tent with his uncle’s family. 

In the chaos of the fighting and her family’s flight, Ghida knew: her baby was coming.

As the violence endures, more men are heading back to Syria to smuggle in medicine and arms, and join the Free Syrian Army. This push to join the rebel cause has created an almost frantic need to get married and bear children among young men who fear they may die in combat.

Saher Karjum, another refugee in the Yayladagi camp, was engaged before seeking refuge in Turkey, and recently got married in the camp. They are trying to have a baby now, as he will soon head back to Syria to join the FSA. Depending on if his wife is pregnant, she may join him in Syria to help take care of the wounded. 

This week marked a new phase of peace talks among international leaders, all of whom are working to implement Kofi Annan’s U.N.- sanctioned ceasefire effectively. Despite their efforts, the bloodshed seems relentless. Refugee families in camps are waiting for a change as peacekeepers land on Syrian soil. But as one family of eight children said, as they held up photos of their blown-out home, “[the children] don’t cry for missing their house, but they feel something strange. We cry because we know what’s going on.” Homes, jobs, and lives have been destroyed and will be difficult to rebuild. Even if there is an end to the conflict in the coming months, parents will have to choose whether to bring their children back to the little that’s left, or start the long process of finding a new place to call home.