It feels like a lifetime ago that the image of Alan Kurdi, a young Syrian boy who drowned in the Mediterranean Sea, made global headlines. That tragic image shocked the world. It brought attention to the conflict in Syria that has forced millions of people from their homes. 

This month marks ten years since the unrest began in Syria. In the last decade, millions of families have tried to build new lives, living as refugees in other countries. One of those countries is Lebanon, where Medical Teams works.

Families living in these settlements still struggle to meet their basic needs. They still need medical care and mental health support.

“It has been 10 years since the dreams and hopes of more than 11 million Syrians were destroyed. It is hard to explain by words the effect of the conflict on the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. One decade has passed, and their eyes are still deprived of hope, their lives didn’t get any easier throughout the years.

Since working with Medical Teams, I had the chance to meet thousands of refugees in the Bekaa valley. Refugees fled seeking safety and hoping to find a place that they can sleep at night without waking up terrified from the bomb sounds and losing the ones they love.

All refugees lived the same tragedy, and they have a common dream to go back home.” – Samira Youssef, Medical Teams Lebanon Program Manager

Samira and other Medical Teams staff are continuing to train Refugee Outreach Volunteers (ROVs) to help meet these needs. Our ROVs monitor the chronic illnesses of their neighbors and share messages on how to stay healthy. These messages are more important than ever during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Samira and Shaza outside an informal refugee settlement in Lebanon.

Shaza is one of the Syrian refugees and ROVs that Samira has gotten to know through Medical Teams. As we remember the people still affected by this crisis, let us not forget women like Shaza and other Syrian refugees. This is Shaza’s story.

Shaza is a young Syrian woman whose life was turned upside down. War destroyed her home and extinguished her dreams. As we sit inside a tent in a refugee settlement in Lebanon, I’m instantly drawn to her quiet strength. With courage, she shares her story of what was once a rich and promising life.

A Promising Life Destroyed

“In Syria, life was very full, with school, friends and family. I was a 16-year-old student, I was very smart at school and had honored grades always. I studied very hard for my exams. I had plans to go to university and dreams of becoming a pharmacist.” Shaza describes with a mix of pride and grief.

One day, everything changed. A bomb destroyed Shaza’s school. She explains, “I lost my school, lost my friends, lost my dreams and lost my family members.” All her academic records were destroyed. Without those records, Shaza will not be able to continue her education. “I feel like they took not only my future, but my past too.”

As the war raged on, Shaza’s entire town was destroyed by bombing. Her family had to move to a different, more isolated town. It became difficult to find food. Every day they feared for their lives. Then, a bomb killed her cousin on his way to university.

Fleeing for Their Lives

Shaza’s father, fearing for his family’s lives, made the difficult decision to leave Syria. The family of five boarded a bus that would take them to Lebanon. “As the bus made its way toward Lebanon, I watched out the back window until I couldn’t see anymore because I wanted to remember Syria. I didn’t want to miss anything.”

Shaza’s heartache is palpable; she misses her grandmother and the close family and friends she left behind. The bus ride itself was traumatic.

What should have been a short journey turned into multiple days. Fighting blocked the bus from getting to the border. “Being trapped on a bus for 24 hours was very terrifying…I could hear bombs and airplanes. There was shooting everywhere so you knew everyone was dying. I thought I could die at any moment.”

Waking Up a Refugee

Shaza’s family finally arrived in Lebanon during the middle of a very cold night in January. It was 2:00AM and it was snowing. She remembers waking the first morning. “When I came to Lebanon, I was shocked because I thought we would be staying in a home, but I woke up in a tent. There were four families sharing the one-room tent for 15 days. It was very hard. This was a turning point. It took me a long time to accept what was happening. I was mad and I was sad.”

Shaza had dreams of being in the medical field. But in Lebanon, the only work she could do was collecting rocks in a field. For three long years, she did this work, growing more hopeless as the days passed.

“When we came to Lebanon, it was like life stopped. We had no hope. I couldn’t go back. I couldn’t go forward.”

A refugee settlement in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
An informal refugee settlement where Syrian refugees live in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon.

A Glimmer of Hope

One day, she saw the Medical Teams outreach in her camp. She wanted to learn more. “I loved the idea that I would learn about blood pressure and monitoring blood sugar.”

Shaza eventually trained to be a Refugee Outreach Volunteer. She began to teach others in her community about how to stay healthy. She helped monitor the health of those around her.

Volunteering for Medical Teams International has given her hope. She’s well-loved in the community. Her bright and loving demeanor puts her neighbors at ease and reminds them that they matter. Most importantly, Shaza has a purpose.

She has grown in her role and is now helping other volunteers do their jobs too. “As Senior Refugee Outreach Volunteer with Medical Teams International, I measure blood pressure and glucose, I conduct health awareness sessions, and I look for sick people that require help. I have a glucometer and a blood pressure cuff. I’m doing important work now. I can take care of the older people in my community. It gives me a good feeling that I’m helping people.”

Shaza, the Senior Refugee Outreach Volunteer, giving medical care to a child with diabetes in a Lebanon refugee camp
Shaza visits a child with diabetes to check her blood sugar levels.

Healing from Trauma and Loss

Besides giving Shaza a new purpose, she says the job has helped her heal from the trauma and loss that she experienced.

“Medical Teams gave me a new opportunity. Volunteering helped heal my heart. I can feel others pain, even though I have my own pain. But sometimes it makes me forget about my own pain. I’m not losing hope. My work is important, and it shows others that they are important.”

A Light in Her Community

Shaza feels great joy knowing that her work is making a difference. “I met a woman during one of our vaccination awareness sessions. This woman had not vaccinated her children at all. After our visit, she understood the importance of vaccination. When we followed up with her a few weeks later, we discovered that she had vaccinated all of her children after our visit. I felt like I had saved the lives of a whole family.”

Shaza works to treat people’s physical ailments and looks after the mental health of her neighbors. “During one of the mental health awareness sessions, I met a lady who had been married for seven years and was not able to have any children. She was depressed. I immediately referred her to our Mental Health and Psychosocial Support worker Christina, who in turn provided the woman with the proper support. Her psychological status changed. I feel like I played an important role in helping her by giving her access to a professional.”

Dreams for the Future

With every new day, Shaza’s hope grows. The informal settlement has become a new home for Shaza and Medical Teams her second family. Still, Shaza dreams of a bright future and of returning home. Shaza, smiling and hopeful, surrounded by the refugee camp she calls home “Personally, I hope that one day I will achieve my ambitions, and as a part of the refugee community I hope that we all return to our country.”

Your support can make a profound difference, giving hope to women like Shaza who have lost so much. Consider making a donation to help more refugees in difficult places.

Jenna Degen
Jenna Degen
Senior Director of Marketing & Communications

Post first shared in March 2019.