“I do miss Syria,” says Zahra. “But I miss my face more.”
Zahra is a Syrian refugee who has just recently arrived in Lebanon for medical treatment. Her eyes dart nervously across the hospital waiting room as she sees someone walking past. She tries to shy away from strangers and their stares.
The day Zahra’s life was shattered
A few years ago, Zahra and her family were at home in Aleppo, Syria. They heard a gunshot which pierced the quiet. And then another came. And another. Before long, the noise had erupted into a violent bombardment of bangs and explosions, and the family were terrified.
A gas canister was fired into their house. In blind panic, the family ran down into the basement, praying for their safety. But when Zahra realised her sister was still upstairs, she ran back to bring her down.
As she grabbed her sister, another gas canister was shot into the house and exploded on entry. The shrapnel ripped into her lower jaw, tearing it off her face. Her sister was injured too, but nowhere near as badly as Zahra.
The images of Zahra’s injury are too gruesome for us to share.
Zahra’s long and arduous journey to help
When the fighting eventually died down, Zahra’s family took her immediately to the hospital where doctors managed to refit her jaw. However, after a few days, Zahra’s newly fitted jaw became infected and the doctors had no choice but to remove it. Zahra was devastated.
“I had so much hope that my face would go back to how it was. But when it became infected and the doctors had to take out my jaw again, I lost all hope. It was one of the hardest days of my life.”
At this point in time, the family were desperate to leave Syria. Their neighbourhood had been destroyed by the fighting that they’d been caught in. Their home no longer felt safe. They didn’t know what else to do but flee, so they headed to the Turkish border.
Upon reaching Ankara, they found an NGO which could fund a microscopic surgery to reconstruct Zahra’s jaw. The surgery took parts of her bone and flesh from her leg and shaped it into a lower jaw and re-fitted it.
Where does INARA come in?
In Turkey the family was not able to find help to fund the extra surgeries that Zahra needs. That’s when we were put in touch with the family.
Some of their relatives pulled together the little money they had left to buy the family plane tickets from Turkey to Lebanon. Zahra’s siblings have had to go back to Syria from here. Zahra, her youngest sister, and both parents have remained at a relative’s house in Beirut while she awaits the surgery. The parents are worried about their children and what they will face in the future in their war torn country.
Zahra’s entire lower face is bloated. Her surgery in Turkey left exposed fat building up on her jaw, which means she struggles to close her mouth and chew. She also doesn’t have a lower lip, meaning that excess water spills out of her mouth. Because flesh was taken from her leg as well, there is a build up of unsightly hair on her face - something that Zahra is extremely embarrassed about.
Now, she’s too ashamed to show anyone her face. Her scarf is wrapped tightly around where her injury is. She is even reluctant to remove it for the doctors.
Once we introduced her to doctors at the American University of Beirut Medical Center (AUBMC) they set out precisely what we could do to help Zahra, which will help to restore some of her confidence. Doctors will reconstruct her lip so that she will be able to close her mouth and eat properly. They will also be able to perform liposuction on the exposed fat on her face and do laser hair removal on the newly refitted part of her jaw.
What this would mean for Zahra
When her parents talk about what Zahra was like before the accident, they speak of what a sociable and outgoing girl she was. Now, they say she hides away. She doesn’t go to school. She tells us excitedly that once her operation has finished, she’d love to go back to school again.
When we talk to Zahra’s mother about the stares that she receives whenever she goes out the house, her mother sighs. “I wish they could see how beautiful she is inside. She’s so brave. She saved her sister’s life and in doing so got horribly injured. If only the people who stared at her knew...”
Update (February 4, 2017)
Zahra had a second surgery on her lower jaw, which went successfully. She seemed a lot more confident after the surgery - more than she has been for a while, according to her caseworker.