Heartbreaking Photos of Syrian Refugees and Their Newborns

3 minute read

What’s more important: food or medicine? That’s a decision Wadhah Hamada, a 22-year-old Syrian refugee, has been forced to make ever since she gave birth to her first son Ra’fat in Mafraq, northeast Jordan. Hamada’s husband struggles to find work and just one day of diarrhea medicine for their son costs as much as he manages to earn in a whole month.

Hamada’s plight is shared by thousands of other women living in these unofficial refugee camps along the Jordanian-Syrian border, where they endure harsh desert temperatures, sandstorms and crippling poverty, all while trying to care for their newborns.

Jordan currently provides shelter to some 630,000 registered Syrian refugees, out of more than four million who have fled Syria’s civil war since 2011. The vast majority live outside official UNHCR camps, in settlements that Associated Press Chief photographer for the Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan Muhammed Muheisen first visited in March. He soon decided he wanted to tell stories of some of the most vulnerable people living there: pregnant women.

The U.N. estimated in March that more than 11,000 Syrian refugees were pregnant. Thousands of babies have been born in these difficult circumstances, to mothers without access to medical care or even running water.

The pregnant women that Muheisen met in these makeshift camps said they could neither afford medical treatment nor the transport necessary to reach a clinic in the nearest city. Many feared looming medical bills that they would never be able to pay. While mobile clinics run by NGOs bring occasional relief, some said it had been a month or two since they had even seen one.

In March, Muheisen photographed 15 Syrian women in Mafraq, all at various stages of pregnancy. “I could not stop thinking about these women,” says Muheisen, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. “It’s not just a project. It’s personal, I feel involved. They opened their doors to me and the least I can do is raise their voices.”

Muheisen decided to return to Mafraq in July, spending days trying to track down the women he had met months earlier. All but three had moved on, so he spent days going from camp to camp trying to find the others. Those he found again were visibly transformed by their experiences of motherhood.

When Muheisen first met Hamada, for instance, he says she was incredibly angry and desperate. “She was carrying the whole world’s pain on her shoulders,” he says. “The next time I saw her, she looked totally defeated. She had lost faith in humanity.”

The photographer says Bushra Eidah, a 16-year-old from Ghouta al-Sharqia, appeared to have aged a decade in the space of a few months. “When it was only me and my husband, it didn’t matter if we went to sleep hungry,” she told him. “Now we have a child and I don’t know how we are going to feed her.”

The hardships they endured and the challenges ahead cannot be underestimated. One woman, however, has managed to draw strength from her experiences. Huda Alsayil, 20, feared the medical complications that might arise from the late delivery of her first son, Mezwid. After that trauma, she said she felt “complete”, as if she had been given a new life. “Holding him feels like the best gift I could be granted.”

Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
"Winter is so cold, summer is hot and dry. My husband hardly works and some of the decisions we had to make have been deciding what is more important: To buy bread to feed ourselves or medicine in case my child is in need?" Syrian refugee Wadhah Hamada, 22, holds her 10-day-old son Ra'fat inside her father's tent near the Syrian border, on the outskirts of Mafraq, Jordan, on Aug. 11, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
"We are the ones who live outside of the registered camps with miserable conditions. My husband has no work. All we want is people to help us and pay us some attention." Mahdiya Alkhalid, 36, holds her 18-week-old daughter Mariam, on Aug. 13, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
"We left Syria two years ago with nothing and today we have nothing, I wish someone could turn to us, help us, take us out of our misery." Feedah Ali, 18, holds her two-day-old daughter Khadija, on Aug. 16, 2015.Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
"I delivered several days after my due day and I was so afraid. We had to borrow money for me to deliver and up to now my husband hasn't paid it back. He can't afford it." Khalida Moussa, 28, holds her 5-week-old son Abdulelah, on Aug. 14, 2015.Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
"We are left alone. No one comes to check on us. We live by the roadside." Mona Hussein, 33, holds her month-old daughter Zahra, on Aug. 4, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
After delivering her first son safely despite fears of medical complications, Huda Alsayil says she now feels complete for the first time in months. "Holding him feels like the best gift I could be granted." Huda Alsayil, 20, holds her week-old son Mezwid on Aug. 1, 2015.Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
"I'm speechless, I have no words left," Huda Alhumaidi says, "We are done complaining and begging for help. We are abandoned here. I just want to go back to my country. Even if we have to start from zero there as we lost our home, at least we will be able to live with dignity." Huda Alhumaidi, 30, holds her month-old daughter Islam on Aug. 19, 2015. Muhammed Muheisen—AP
Syrian refugee mothers Jordan
Wazeera Elaiwi, 29, holds her 2-month-old son Mohammed, on Aug. 11, 2015.Muhammed Muheisen—AP

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Write to Naina Bajekal at naina.bajekal@time.com