ZAATARI, Jordan – In a tent hospital bed, a Syrian woman who was four months pregnant when she fled her country’s civil war cradles one of the newest residents of this dust-swept refugee camp: Her newborn son, just delivered by cesarean.
Around a dozen babies are born every day in Zaatari camp, which is home to 120,000 Syrians and counting – and there’s only one, overworked Moroccan doctor performing C-sections.
Still, the clinic where he operates and several other field hospitals here performing regular births are a moment of quality care for women dealing with pregnancy on top of the trauma suffered in their homeland and the hardship of exile in a rough camp.
Thank God, we have clean facilities and safe instruments in such a refugee camp, the woman, Umm Raad, said this week in the maternity ward of the Moroccan field hospital, holding her hour-old baby, Abdullah. Like other women in the camp, she asked to be identified by her nickname for fear of repercussions against her family still in Syria.
Over 10 months, Zaatari near the border with Syria has catapulted from a barren patch of desert to effectively become Jordan’s fifth-largest city, and it’s still rapidly growing. They are only a portion of the more than half-million Syrian refugees in Jordan, the rest of whom live in towns and cities around the country, with 1,500 to 3,000 more crossing in from Syria every day.
The United Nations and other international agencies are racing to try to provide them with medical services – including for pregnant women or women with newborn children.
There are 10 to 13 births taking place every day in the Zaatari camp alone, said Muna Idris, the assistant representative to Jordan for the U.N. Population Fund, known by the acronym UNFPA. We’re expecting that number to increase as the number of refugees in the camp increases.
By the end of the year, she estimated, there will be 1.2 million refugees in Jordan – of that number, there will be 30,000 who are pregnant.
More than a quarter of the population at Zaatari are women of childbearing age, a significant portion of whom fled here with their children, but not their husbands, who remained behind to deal with businesses, protect homes or even fight in the rebellion against President Bashar Assad’s regime.
In the camp, housed in tents or trailers, many of the women talk of the burdens of collecting water from the camp’s communal facilities and walking long distances for clinic visits, then waiting long hours in the sun for their turn – usually with young children in tow.
There are several tent hospitals at the camp run by a number of countries, including Jordan, France and the United Arab Emirates, providing a variety of health services to the refugees. Serious medical conditions are treated in nearby Jordanian hospitals.
All the clinics carry out regular births. A comprehensive number of births since Zaatari was set up in July was not available, but more than 280 children were born in the camp during just six weeks this year, according to the six weekly camp reports by the U.N. refugee agency that are available on its website.
Um Murad, who delivered her baby girl Judy a week ago at Zaatari, said the hardest part was not having her family around to help in the birth and with the newborn. Judy developed a fever, then jaundice and after a frantic search finally a place was found for her at a hospital in the nearby Jordanian town of Mafraq.
Back home in Syria, it would be normal for my mother and close relatives to be at my side during the delivery of my baby, Um Murad said. There were no relatives here to help me.
Visiting the new mother, one of her neighbors, Um Ahmed, said the birth in a refugee camp seals the baby’s fate.
You’re born inside a refugee camp and you are registered as a refugee. That says it all. It’s never the same as being born in freedom in your own country, she said.