Fourteen-month-old Khaled* was about to die. The entirety of his young life had been spent under the shadow of the conflict in Syria, but the greatest threat, in the end, was not the violence itself: Trapped in the besieged refugee camp of Yarmouk, near Damascus, with barely any food and no access to outside assistance, everyone suffered, but Khaled was too young and weak to survive much longer living only on water, with barely any food.
"Hell is better," is how his mother, 29-year-old Noor*, describes Yarmouk. For the past two months, there had been no food; the family boiled spices in water and drank it, and ate the grass on the ground. "Now there isn't any of that left - we ate it all," she said. She could not even breastfeed: Only a few months after he was born, Noor herself was so underfed that her breast milk stopped. Powdered milk was unavailable; a single litre of cow milk cost US$ 20. Khaled developed kwashiorkor - severe malnutrition related to a lack of protein - along with severe swelling on his limbs, a protruding abdomen and stunted growth.
Death was everywhere in Yarmouk - "Everyone thought of it, either because of hunger or because of shelling," Noor explains. A neighbour died in childbirth when the midwife was called away to another delivery; a 4-month-old niece died of hunger. "I decided I had to go out with my children. I wasn't afraid: If we died, we would all die together," Noor says.
The only way to save her son was to get him out of Yarmouk. Noor took the chance: With all five of her children, she went from checkpoint to checkpoint, first inside Yarmouk and then outside, until finally a soldier took pity on her malnourished baby and let her out. The soldiers gave them bread and bought them food, but were surprised that the children would eat only bread. They hadn't had it for months.
Despite the hell he had lived through, Khaled is one of the lucky ones: Noor brought him to an UNRWA clinic outside Yarmouk, where the Agency's Dr. Ibrahim Mohammad* quickly assessed the situation: He looked like a 5-month-old, not a 14-month-old, and needed urgent assistance. After 20 days of proper nutrition and medical care, Khaled looks completely different - smiling, with light in his eyes - and has a new chance at life.
This is just one story: Thousands remain inside Yarmouk, many of them children, and many are in straits as dire as Khaled's. After many months, UNRWA has finally been granted some access to Yarmouk and been able to provide food parcels – including bread and milk for infants – to a number of families, but the scale of need remains immense. The frustration is clear in Dr. Mohammad's voice as he says, "We can still save a lot of children's lives, if we can just reach them."
* Names have been changed.