By Susan Shand
18 March, 2018

Sara al-Matoura watched her daughter through a window as her daughter's chest moved up and down under a tangle of medical wires.

The mother from the Syrian city of Homs had not eaten for a day. She was up all night by her one-year-old daughter's side at a hospital in the Jordanian capital of Amman.

Al-Matoura had fled the Syrian war for Jordan in 2012. She was only four months pregnant when she found out the baby had a congenital heart condition known as tricuspid atresia. Ninety percent of children with the condition would die before the age of ten.

Doctors advised her to end the pregnancy but Al-Matoura refused. "She is my gift from God," she said. She named her daughter Eman. It means "faith" in Arabic.

Eman recently received a life-saving open heart surgery. The surgery was one of eight heart operations performed by surgeons from the Vatican's Bambino Gesu Hospital.

In this Monday, March 5, 2018 photo, Syrian refugee Sara al-Matoura holds her one-year-old daughter, Eman, before her surgery at a hospital in Amman, Jordan.
In this Monday, March 5, 2018 photo, Syrian refugee Sara al-Matoura holds her one-year-old daughter, Eman, before her surgery at a hospital in Amman, Jordan.

The Italian surgeons performed the operations for free. But U.N. officials say many refugees with medical problems do not get treatment because of financial difficulties.

The more the treatment costs, the more likely their requests will be denied. Even services such as childbirth have become too costly.

Some 5.5 million Syrians have fled their homeland since 2011. Jordan now has more than 650,000 Syrians registered with the U.N. refugee agency.

Jordanian officials say the number of Syrians in the country is actually two times higher. Additionally, they do not have enough money to take care of their own citizens.

The situation is getting worse as Europe and the U.S. are closing the borders to refugees and there are no signs of peace in Syria.

While Eman was in the operating room, another Syrian mother tried to keep her 12-year-old son Tamer from moving.

Tamer also has a congenital heart condition. When he moves too much, he loses his breath and turns blue.

Dr. Iyad al-Ammouri is a children's heart surgeon at the University of Jordan Hospital. He said children with Tamer's condition should receive an operation at age five or six.

But Tamer's surgery will cost up to $28,000, far more money than his mother has. Tamer's mother supports him alone as his father is still trapped in Syria.

Jordan used to help pay for Syrian refugees' medical care. But that was stopped in February. Now, a special committee of doctors reviews hundreds of cases each month and decides which one to help.

Late-stage cancer treatment, for example, is usually denied. Costly surgeries are also delayed or denied.

"Of course people come back month after month," said Dr. Adam Musa, a U.N. public health officer who sits on the committee.

He said people would appeal again and again because the need is urgent. "It's painful," he added.

In January, 60 out of 143 refugee appeals for emergency help were approved. The United Nations gave them about $2,000 each. There wasn't enough money for the rest, Musa said.

Across the area, the decreased support and the lack of aid have left millions of refugees on the edge of survival, even pushing some to return to Syria.

The U.N. refugee agency spent $51 million in Lebanon last year. Yet it could not cover most life-saving surgeries.

"There are very few NGOs that are able to provide support for some of these cases and we know that people have taken difficult decisions to return to Syria for care," said Dr. Michael Woodman, a senior public health officer with the UN.

After Eman's surgery, doctors told her parents she would likely need another, more difficult surgery in two to five years.

"I don't know where we will get the money then," al-Matoura said. "But thank God for healing her today."

I'm Susan Shand.

Alice Su reported this story for the AP. Susan Shand adapted this story for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

chest - n. the front part of the body between the neck and the stomach

tangle - n. a twisted knot of hair, thread or wires

congenital - adj. existing since birth

heart – n. the organ in your chest that pumps blood through your veins and arteries

surgery - n. medical treatment in which a doctor cuts into someone's body in order to repair or remove damaged or diseased parts

NGO - n. a non-governmental organization, such as a charity