Iraqi refugees face painful
wait for artificial limbs
Mohammed (not is real name), 38, whose
right leg is severed above the knee, is one of
many Iraqi refugees waiting for prosthetics at
the Syrian branch of charity Terre des
hommes (Tdh) orthopaedic workshop.
Nine years ago, Mohammed, a Sunni
Muslim, married his Shia wife. Both were
schoolteachers and had three daughters.
But after the 2003 US invasion of Iraq
triggered sectarian violence, Mohammed
says he was threatened by the Mahdi Army
for living in a Shia neighbourhood.
In 2006 the militia kidnapped him for
ransom. They hung him by chains and
tortured him. They also sliced up his right
leg with a power drill, he says, and amputated
the gangrened limb soon after.
Finally freed from captivity during a US
military operation, Mohammed testified
against his torturers, and then packed up
his family and belongings to leave for
Mohammed now waits for surgery to
straighten his twisted right femur bone.
Only then can he discard his cumbersome
crutches and apply for a fitted prosthetic.
Barred from work and solely reliant on
the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) for
food rations and a monthly living stipend,
his family waits to be resettled in a third
Mohammed says UNHCR recommended
he and his introverted older
daughter receive counselling for depression.
He admits to taking out his anger by
beating his wife and children, and that he
has considered divorce.
In the stone courtyard of Tdh,
Mohammed’s story is not uncommon
among the mostly Iraqi patients, mauled
by the violence of car bombs, unexploded
ordnance, torture or chemical warfare.
“Our work is 50% technical and 50%
psychological,” explains the orthopaedic
specialist, Khaled Zaynoun. “It’s important
to create a special rapport with the patient.”
There are currently 153,000 Iraqis registered
with UNHCR in Syria, out of a total
of more than 290,000 since 2003. Off the
books, an estimated 1.5 million Iraqis
sought shelter in Syria during the height of
Tdh is overwhelmed. Only a handful of
prosthetic production facilities exists in
Syria, and the charity is entirely reliant on
private donors. It has created an estimated
480 prosthetics and has grants approved for
another 35. Zaynoun says he has about 150
disabled refugees, mostly children, still
waiting for treatment and the finances for it.
“Each case is quite unique, and we try to
provide a tailor-made solution for each
patient using materials largely imported
from Europe,” Zaynoun says.
“High-end electronic prosthetic limbs
can cost between 5,000 Euros [about
US$6,600] and E20,000 [about $26,430],”
“The ones we make here cost
about E2,000 [about $2,640]. They are
pretty basic but they allow people to walk
Four-year-old Hiba Sabah was born with a
genetic defect: both legs are stunted above
the knee. Her father Fadi says he and his
wife Rana were caught in the middle of
heavy fighting in their Baghdad neighbourhood
after the US military invasion.
When the family finally fled to Syria in
2005, Rana was seven months pregnant
with Hiba. The doctors in the Damascus
hospital where she was born attributed her
deformity to chemical warfare.
“Hiba is having a very hard time in
school,” Fadi says. “During the breaks the
kids go out to play but she cannot. She
feels left out since she has to stay in the
In October, the World Health Organisation and the Iraqi Government
announced an ongoing investigation into
birth defects across Iraq, after widespread
media reports highlighted an alarming rate
of deformities caused by radiation and
chemical weapons in Fallujah.
At the Tdh centre, Hiba dons a pair of
prosthetic legs custom-made for her, and
awkwardly practises walking across the
“In the beginning patients feel a lot of
pain,” explains Zaynoun.
“There is a long
period of getting used to the prosthetic on
a psychological level rather than a physical
level, which is fairly straight forward. They
need to learn to live with it, and then force
other people to treat them fairly. It’s not
He acknowledges these expensive limbs
come at a price for children like Hiba.
“The problem is at her age, she keeps
“We rely on private donors but they are
not predictable,” says her father. He adds
that the family receives no additional
assistance. “I regret starting this whole
process, I don’t know how to replace
them.” -- IRIN
of upload: 25th Apr 2011