‘I just decided to go. Everyone told me not to, that it was too dangerous for a woman. I made some official enquiries but didn’t get anywhere, so I thought hallas – enough – and went.’
Ten months later, as she recalls her first visit to the Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan, Maha Alasil is unfazed by the life changes that trip brought about.
A professional translator for most of her adult life, Maha had been based in Jordan’s capital, Amman, for a year when the Syrian uprising ignited in March 2011. Since October last year, she has taken on the relentless task of helping Syrians adapt to life as refugees, while continuing her translation work at night. Whether providing basics like diapers and clothes, or access to advanced medical assistance, she has helped rebuild dozens of shattered lives. At a push, she coyly describes herself as a humanitarian activist.
In October 2012, with civil war raging, thousands of Syrians were fleeing their country daily. Jordan had opened a refugee camp which was expanding rapidly.
‘Winter was coming and thousands of people were living in tents in the desert. It was my first visit to a refugee camp and I was shocked. I needed to return and help.’
Maha collected blankets from friends and family in Amman, which she distributed at the camp later that week.
‘I met more people the second time I visited. A young father, Ibrahim, had been detained and tortured in Syria. He was depressed, sleeping most of the day and suffering back pain from the torture.’
At that time, there were only primary-healthcare facilities at the camp and its residents were prohibited from leaving without a Jordanian guarantor. Ibrahim snuck out and travelled to Amman, where Maha took him to see Muawiya Abdeljaber, an orthopaedic specialist who treated him free of charge.
Abdeljaber, who had formerly worked as a surgeon with the British National Health Service, urged Maha to bring him any Syrian patients, whom he would treat for free or at a significant discount. Ibrahim passed Maha’s phone number to others in need of specialist care and her phone was soon ringing.
‘My second case, Yaman, had lost his leg in Syria. He’d received basic care at a field hospital in Syria and was given a prosthetic leg, but he was in agony. I took him to someone who specializes in prostheses.’
Although she received a discount, the procedure was expensive and Maha sold two gold bracelets to pay for Yaman’s new leg, a story she recounts with disarming humility.
‘I couldn’t disappoint him!’ she laughs, ‘but at the same time, I knew I couldn’t just sell off my possessions. I had to make my work sustainable, so I tried raising funds through Twitter.’ The social media site strategy has proved successful so far. A woman in Oklahoma donated $2,000. A Saudi man donated $700, while a Syrian man based in the United Arab Emirates sent the same amount.
‘There’s a huge need in Jordan. I’m working with people across the country as well as the camp. I’ve got a long list of patients that need help, a three-year-old who needs plastic surgery, a boy with lung cancer and many families who are being threatened with eviction.’
Housing rents in Jordan have soared over the past two years, with monthly rates tripling in northern cities close to the border. Meanwhile, refugees aren’t allowed to work legally in Jordan, leaving many scraping together a meagre wage in the informal sector or not working at all.
More than two million people have fled Syria as a result of the conflict, with 515,000 of those arriving in Jordan, according to a UNHCR estimate in August. The scale of the crisis has overwhelmed local and international NGOs. Unable to earn a sustainable income, and with any savings dwindling, the majority of refugees cannot afford specialist hospital treatment. Volunteers such as Maha work tirelessly, raising funds to fill part of a funding gap that widens with each new refugee.
Meanwhile, Maha has a new project planned to help raise funds: ‘I’m making a website to share the stories of refugees and their needs so that people can donate. It’s devastating meeting so many people who have lost hope and direction. They’ve had their lives taken away from them and I just want the chance to make their futures better.’