No help on the way for Iraq’s cancer-stricken refugees

Limited aid and resources are preventing the refugees from receiving the medical care they need.

Abdelrahman Shindi
Abdelrahman Shindil stands in front of the small market he opened after being diagnosed with stage II lymphoma [Abed al-Qaisi/Al Jazeera]

Dohuk, Iraq – Gunar Aziz, a Syrian refugee from Qamishli, was filled with dread when she discovered a tumour in her left breast in January. The 35-year-old had experienced enough hardship as it was – having fled Syria four years ago, she has been living in small quarters at the Domiz Refugee Camp in northern Iraq.

She described the months following the discovery as the most difficult time in her life. Aziz immediately sought out the general care clinic at Domiz. The clinic, ill-equipped to handle serious medical concerns, referred her to the main hospital in nearby Dohuk city.

There, doctors confirmed the lump needed testing to determine whether it was cancerous, but told Aziz she would have to pay the more than $1,000 in medical fees out of pocket. “When I heard the cost I was terrified,” Aziz told Al Jazeera. “I have never been so scared, not since I had to run from Syria four years ago.”

Aziz’s family spent a month seeking out organisations that worked in Domiz Camp, trying to find one that could help her. But their efforts were fruitless. “There are so many refugees here now, I think the system can’t handle all of us. No one could help me,” said Aziz.

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The Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), which controls parts of northern Iraq, has reported that around two million internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees have taken shelter in the Kurdish autonomous region as war rages in Iraq and neighbouring Syria.

So far in 2015, Iraq’s IDP and refugee population has received only 8 percent of the funding it needs as called for by the United Nations’ 2015 Strategic Response Plan. Many aid organisations have been cutting back on their services due to shortages.

While the UN has set up primary health centres in all of the camps it sponsors, usually in partnership with Doctors Without Borders (MSF), UNHCR Public Information Officer Liene Veide told Al Jazeera that these care centres only cover general medical care. More serious medical needs are referred to hospitals run by the KRG.

People have been kind to help us, but borrowing money isn't something we can keep doing.

by Hudda Awad, a Syrian patient

However, the Kurdish Department of Health told Al Jazeera that its medical infrastructure is stretched, too. Residents of the region are already on long waiting lists, while treatment for diseases like cancer are expensive and in short supply. The mass influx of refugees and IDPs are straining an already struggling medical system.

Aziz, her hopes of receiving treatment in Iraq exhausted, was willing to try anything – even if that meant bidding farewell to her family and making her way back into war-torn Syria.

Arriving in her hometown of Qamishli, the town’s hospital told her it would have carried out all the tests she needed for free – but that the specialist equipment was now gone. Instead, doctors told her the only option would be to make her way to Damascus, through territory controlled by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group.

“How could I go to Damascus? It was like a sick joke. I would have been killed on my way there,” Aziz said. “After everything, going back into Syria, it was for nothing. I had to leave again without help.”

Feeling dejected, Aziz returned to Iraq, where her brother suggested she try to make a private deal with a doctor. Shortly thereafter and two months after she found the tumour, a doctor in Dohuk agreed to remove the lump and have it tested for $400, without the hospital’s knowledge.

The deal went ahead, and Aziz finally discovered that the tumour was benign.”I had to go through all that, go back into Syria, pay a doctor in secret to find out it wasn’t cancer. If it was cancer I would have no chance, because no one would have helped pay for the medical fees I might have needed.”

Iraqi refugees put strain on Erbil hospitals


While Aziz’s ordeal is over, the same cannot be said of other refugees who have been diagnosed with cancer while in the camps. Abdelrahman Shindil, 42, another resident at Domiz, has stage II lymphoma. Shindil, originally from Qamishli, had worked as a carpenter, scraping together a living for his family.

But as his condition worsened, the work became too strenuous for him. With children to look after and medical costs to pay for, Shindil used the little savings he had to build and open a market made from small cinderblocks.

Like Aziz, he has been unable to find any form of financial aid to offset his costly medical bills. “I am supposed to take the medicine every two weeks, but I can only afford to buy it every month or month and a half,” Shindil told Al Jazeera. “Even then, sometimes the hospital in Dohuk doesn’t have the medicine, so I have to travel to Erbil. That’s four hours away and costs even more money.”

The Kurdish Department of Health confirmed to Al Jazeera that medical supplies for cancer treatment are often lacking in Dohuk and the rest of the Kurdish region. The capital city, Erbil, is a notable exception. Shindil has desperately asked around for help, but said none of the organisations in the camp can provide him with the money for the treatments he needs.

Shindil should be resting, instead he works in his small shop every day. The money he earns is only half of what he needs to pay for the full treatment.

In order to pay for her cancer treatment, Hudda Awad has been borrowing money from other residents of her camp [Abed al-Qaisi/Al Jazeera]

One-hundred sixty kilometres southeast of Dohuk in the Baharka IDP camp, 49-year-old Hudda Awad is in a similar situation as Shindil. Awad fled Mosul when ISIL captured the city last year. Three months ago, she was diagnosed with cancer, and has been able to pay for treatment only by borrowing money from other families in the camp. Such goodwill from individuals who are also in dire need, however, cannot last.

“People have been kind to help us, but borrowing money isn’t something we can keep doing. I already don’t know how I will pay this all back,” Awad said, smiling warmly but weakly while sitting inside her UNHCR-branded tent.

Weekly medical treatment, travel, and other costs related to her cancer amount to $200-$250 per week -more than the average weekly income in Iraq. Awad’s family has already run out of what little savings they had. Like others in her position, Awad approached organisations that worked in the camp. But not one was willing to help with medical costs. “I feel like I am speaking to the wall trying to find help,” Awad said, her voice breaking as she tried to hold back tears. “It’s like I’m not speaking to humans.”

Source: Al Jazeera