Reyhanli, Turkey – At just five years old, Ali has had to adapt to his new life in a wheelchair.
Paralysed from the waist down by shrapnel after his family’s village in northwest Syria was shelled last month, Ali is receiving care in the Turkish border town of Reyhanli.
“Look at him, he can drive his own wheelchair now,” his mother, who wanted to remain anonymous out of fear for their security, told Al Jazeera.
“That day in September, shrapnel from the shelling hit him in his back, in his nerves, and he became paralysed.”
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Ali’s mother described the journey to the border town with her son, moving from village to village as they were being shelled.
Once in Turkey, an ambulance rushed Ali to hospital, where they could only do so much. Once it was apparent he would need long-term rehabilitation, he was transferred to the Syrian Medical Centre.
“His therapy is about practicing the nerves and muscles to move again. He doesn’t have pain but when he does the therapy, he cries. It hurts him but it is good for him.”
Ali’s mother left her husband and eight other children behind in Syria. Her story is a reminder of the lengths families must go to receive medical care.
The Syrian Medical Centre, also known as Dar al-Istshfaa, is a refuge for those wounded in Syria requiring long-term care and rehabilitation.
The centre, which has been running for 15 months, was founded by the Paris-based Union of Syrian Medical Relief Organisations (UOSSM), a coalition of 14 independent medical and relief organisations.
Hundreds of doctors with Syrian origins are involved, and since July 2012 the centre has treated more than 10,000 people. It provides free medical care to anyone, regardless of race, religion or political views, the centre’s manager, Yasir Alsyed, said.
“We take anyone here,” he said. “Most people staying here have big injuries – they are paralysed, have lost part of their body and have broken bones.”
Currently, 65 long-term patients are at the centre, while 100 people come for daily check-ups.
“After they have surgery, those requiring long-term care come here so we can bring them back to being as close to normal as possible,” Alsyed said.
“They stay until they can look after themselves again.”
While patients at the centre have been able to seek respite in this dusty town, there are countless more in Syria requiring urgent medical attention. Those who do manage to get to the border often turn up with amputated limbs, severe infections and paralysis.
An open letter published in The Lancet last month and signed by more than 50 doctors and health professionals warned that Syria’s healthcare system was at “breaking point”, and demanded that medical staff be allowed to treat anyone in need of care.
The signatories to the letter said women were giving birth in Syria with no medical assistance; life-saving surgery was being carried out without anesthetics, and that horrific wounds were going untended.
According to figures released by the World Health Organisation, 37 percent of hospitals have been destroyed in Syria and a further 20 percent have been damaged. In addition, the Syrian-American Medical Society said 78 percent of ambulances have been damaged and 50 percent of physicians have fled the country.
Ten to 15 percent of Dar al-Istshfaa’s patients are women and children, Alsyed said.
Fuazia is one of only a few women who take residence on the second level of the centre. She was wounded outside her home in Hamas in west-central Syria seven months ago.
I received treatment in Syria with no painkillers, and after that I came here to get the hardest part of my treatment.
Fuazia, who asked only her first name be used out of fear for relatives back home, lost her left arm up to her elbow and is unable to walk because of a severe fracture in her left femur. Despite this, she bears a huge smile on her face.
“I was better before this happened but I am okay. I have been bedridden for seven months now,” she said.
In the small room, one of Fuazia’s five daughters and four grandchildren crowd around, making jokes. The rest of her family, including 21 grandchildren and five children, remain in Syria, unable to leave.
“I received treatment in Syria with no painkillers, and after that I came here to get the hardest part of my treatment,” she said.
In the same room, another Syrian woman lays in the bottom bunk bed, her mother on the end holding her hand. Occasionally one of the doctors or physiotherapists stick their head in to check if everyone is okay.
She lost both her legs in shelling in al-Lataminah, a small village in northern Syria, two months ago. While women and children make up a small proportion of those receiving care at the centre, their stories serve as a reminder that anyone can be a target in a war that has claimed more than 115,000 lives.
Walking around the three-story building, there are men learning to walk again using crutches, those with no limbs trying to adapt to their new life and children bedridden, unable to move.
“These people have to learn to move their body again and to come to terms with their injuries,” Alsyed said.
For red-haired Ali, who races through the corridors of the clinic, there is hope.
“The doctor came yesterday and they will send him to America for surgery,” his mother said.
This is a huge relief for the family. Ali’s mother made no attempt to hide her tears as they strolled down her face when she told their story.
“My daughter died in Aleppo not long ago. My government, they are sending gifts for us, in the shape of bombs,” she said.
“How can we manage this? It’s the third year now. How will we survive inside? Look at my son. They [the government] let’s us suffer. All I can do is continue to pray.”