Samira Youssef is a Program Manager with Medical Teams International in Lebanon. Samira spends her days training and overseeing staff and volunteers who serve Syrian refugees in the Bekaa Valley. With no formal refugee camps in Lebanon, Syrians here live in cramped tents on informal settlements.

Samira began her work with Medical Teams as a volunteer community health worker. She has an up-close view of the challenges facing the Syrian refugee community in Lebanon. One and a half million Syrian refugees have fled to Lebanon since the onset of the Syrian war in 2011. There is an economic crisis in Lebanon, compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Beirut port explosion. The country’s currency has collapsed and sent the price of food, fuel and other basics soaring. Today, nine out of ten Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty (UNHCR).


I last spent time with Samira in Lebanon before the pandemic and the economic crisis. Recently, I asked Samira to share an update on the situation in Lebanon. She explains our work and what she has learned from those we serve about their experiences.

What are refugees experiencing in Lebanon?

“Being part of Medical Teams International gives me a chance to see and look after the refugees. It is hard to describe with words the effect of the conflict on the Syrian refugees living in Lebanon. It was terrible for them, coming to a land that was not theirs.”

“In Syria, they had a life system. They had their own livelihoods, routines, systems of support, and resources. Education was free and accessible. They did not have to worry about so many things. Refugees now live in very poor health conditions. Their life systems were destroyed. They don’t have access to basic needs. Their children no longer go to school. They are not learning, and parents are not able to teach them everything they need.”

Samira describes how refugees live in makeshift shelters scattered on informal settlements. This winter, heavy rains, freezing temperatures and snow made the hardships far worse.

“Children were not out playing in the snow and making snowmen. Instead, they worried as their houses flooded. Families had to move from their homes again due to flooding. They were not able to warm their children. With the high cost of fuel, they could not turn on their stoves. Mothers worry about their children every single day. They worry about how to keep their children warm and healthy. They worry about how to provide food, clothing and other basics. They do not know what tomorrow will be hiding for them. Those have been the hardest things.”

flooded refugee camp
Syrian refugee settlement in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley after a storm

How has the current economic crisis in Lebanon affected refugees?

“This is an impossible situation for everyone living in Lebanon. Especially for refugees, it compounds hardship. Prices are soaring for everything: food, fuel, medical services and hospital fees. It is hard to access everything and not all items are available in Lebanon. Many medications are not accessible. Milk and diapers are not available to meet the needs and are very expensive.”

“Without sufficient sources of income, the situation has affected refugees the most. They do not have the opportunity to work in Lebanon other than agricultural work. Refugees receive small amounts of food or money in exchange for their work. They must pay landowners to live in tents on their property. The minimal pay is not enough to provide for their families.”

“Lately, I am hearing from refugees that they are struggling with everything. Before they worried about schooling or health access. Now everything critical feels impossible — food, water, fuel, medicine. Before, if someone had extra food, they would distribute it to their neighbors to help each other. Now everyone is in need so they can’t support each other.”

Samira describes a dark situation with little hope.

“Mental health issues have increased among the refugees. Having remained in Lebanon for so long, it seems hopeless they will be able to return home to Syria.”

How does Medical Teams International help in Lebanon?

“We are living out our Medical Teams calling by showing love and breaking barriers. In Lebanon, Medical Teams is empowering Syrian refugees to take care of themselves. We train refugee outreach volunteers. Volunteers come from the Syrian refugee community and live within the informal settlements. They serve their communities by providing health awareness sessions. Communities trust them. With the right information, people can make good decisions when it comes to their health.”

“In community health sessions, we focus on maternal and child health topics. We cover breastfeeding and child immunizations. We discuss how women can take care of themselves during and after pregnancy. We also provide awareness around prevention of COVID-19 and vaccines. We explain vaccine benefits and help them find the nearest vaccination centers. We help people register for vaccines. Many do not have smart phones or know how to use the required government platform.”

“We also have a mental health project. We are empowering individuals to overcome their psychological stressors.”

“Refugee outreach volunteers, staff and peer organizations identify people who need support. They refer them to Medical Teams. When someone needs help, our psychologist goes to their home and provides one-on-one support.”

“Our psychologist also provides group psychosocial support. In group sessions, we work to lower the stigma of mental health. We seek to understand where there are individuals that need support. These sessions are mainly women. The main goal is to develop a support system where women can support themselves and each other.”

Why is this work important?

“Our work is very important for refugees. We break barriers for them to access health services nearby. We give access to information so they can take their own decisions about their health. Refugees have been going through a lot. Moving from their homes in Syria to Lebanon was not easy for them. With the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis, things have gotten much worse. We may not be able to meet all their basic needs, but we are improving their wellbeing.”

Tell me about your role, Samira. What do you do? How do you spend your days?

“As program manager, I oversee our project and oversee staff and volunteers. I work with our psychologist, mental health workers, community health promoters and refugee outreach volunteers. An important part of my role is to get feedback from the communities we serve. To understand their needs, what they are struggling with and how we can support. Medical Teams has been operating for many years. Our goal is to provide the best services possible.”

What is your motivation for doing this work?

“I have two motivations. First, the smile we can draw on the faces of the people we serve when we support them is a big motivation. Second, they pray for us when we support them. They pray for each of us and they pray for Medical Teams. The prayer coming from their hearts is one of the biggest motivations for me.”

woman and young girl high fiveHow does your own faith come into why you do this?

“Supporting our brothers and sisters and helping others is something God asks us to do.”

What do you love about it? What is most rewarding?

“Visiting with people in the informal settlements is what I love most. People are very welcoming. I appreciate how they are willing to share their struggles, their needs, their stories. These communities trust Medical Teams. They call us first when there is an emergency. When I can help someone and hear the success stories shared from the people we serve, this is most rewarding.”

Any success stories in that you want to share?

“There are so many. We have made a lot of progress with chronic disease patients. Many of these patients have diabetes and hypertension. When we started, patients did not understand the importance of taking medications daily. If they were unable to buy it, they would skip it. Now refugee outreach volunteers have linked people to health centers. Here they get medicines for free so they no longer skip critical medication.”

“Nutrition counseling to help patients improve their diets has been a big success. In some instances, providing advice for simple changes has had a big impact.”

“Our role is to break barriers. We listen and give advice. We recommend changes to behavior within the realities and constraints around them. Now many chronic disease patients are following instructions and taking care of themselves. This is a big success.”

“In mental health, we recently helped a nine-year-old child. His mother reached out to our psychologist when her child began bedwetting. The mother was not sure what was happening, but she knew something was not right. During sessions, the psychologist was able to uncover a source of stress for the child. He was sad and angry about his father traveling far distances to find work. By processing these emotions, the bedwetting stopped. The boy and his mother were able to find relief.”

What else makes you feel proud?

“We help people out of a hopeless situation and give them hope. I love seeing our Refugee Outreach Volunteers become empowered. I love seeing them grow with the support of Medical Teams. Many were working in Syria or studying and wanted to continue their education. They had dreams and career goals shattered. They lost their purpose.”

I ask Samira about Shaza, an amazing refugee outreach volunteer who shared her story with us a few years ago.

“Many have stories like Shaza’s. Their dreams shattered in Syria, but they have been able to find new hope by volunteering and serving in their communities here. This role is good for their wellbeing. It helps them regain their sense of purpose. They gain trust from the community and by helping others, it grows the hope in their hearts too.”

Shaza and Samira stand side by side
Shaza (left) and Samira (right)

How does this work break your heart or what makes you feel angry? What is most difficult?

“What makes me angry the most is knowing that these refugees did not cause the Syrian crisis. The children who have been born after the crisis (within the settlements) have nothing to do with it. They are suffering because of the place and circumstance into which they were born. I’m angry and I care for the refugees because everyone has the right to decide what tomorrow brings them. Everyone has the right to have access to health, everyone has the right to have access to education.”

“Sometimes we are the last hope. With increasing economic stressors, refugees are losing hope faster now. Being the person they trust and have hope in makes it even harder when we are not able to meet all their needs.”

Do you still think it matters even though we can’t do everything?

“Yes, it does.”

What message do you hope to convey to the people you serve at Medical Teams?

“I want to convey that they matter to us. We have them in our prayers always and in case of emergencies, we are ready to support them as needed.”

Do you think that makes a difference?

“Yes, it does. Even with the craziness and uncertainties they face daily. Knowing they matter makes a difference.”

What do you want readers around the world to know about the situation (Syrian refugees in Lebanon)?

“When I first came to Medical Teams International, I had one goal. This was spreading a huge message to everyone that refugees are human. My rights should be their rights. Some people believe that refugee lives are this way because they chose this, but this is far from true. Refugees have been suffering for nearly 12 years. Relocating to Lebanon was not what they hoped, and nothing has been easy for them.”

“Most importantly, refugees in Lebanon need your support. Refugees worldwide need your support. Each of us can make a difference. Together we can make a better world.”

Learn more about Medical Teams’ work in Lebanon and how you can make a difference like Samira.

Jenna Degen



Jenna Degen
Senior Director, Marketing & Communications