Author: Suleman Sheikh

April 1, 2021

COVID-19 in Iraq: Hundreds of infants and children infected

Almost 2,000 children under-10 across the country have been infected in just two weeks.

A rising number of infants and children in Iraq are reported to have been infected by COVID-19 without access to care, as the variant that was first discovered in the UK is wreaking havoc in the country, with reports of children dying.

According to Iraq’s Ministry of Health, thousands of cases have been recorded among children since the discovery of the variant in Iraq was officially announced on 15 February. The number of children under 10 who were diagnosed jumped from 11,699 cases as of 11 March to 13,546 cases on 24 March, an increase of 15.7% in just two weeks.

Although there is no definitive answer yet, scientists earlier suggested that the new variant is transmitting across all ages, including children. Earlier in February, the ministry said the variant accounts for 50% of all new COVID-19 cases.

Doctors have seen an increase in children being hospitalised with COVID-19. But they fear it’s only the tip of the iceberg, as many cases are not taken to hospitals or are only diagnosed in clinics and pharmacies, where they are not officially recorded.

We have seen children as young as 10 admitted to hospital and there is a higher percentage of children with the virus in primary health care centres and paediatric hospitals than before. We worry that many children will catch the virus without having access to proper testing or isolation, which risks them spreading among their friends and older family members.

Overcrowded schools are also likely to lead to a high risk of infections among children.

SEMA US is calling for urgent support to step up access to medical care and protective equipment, provide disinfection and sanitation kits to schools and enforce social distancing and mask-wearing rules.

Since the beginning of the pandemic in Iraq, SEMA US has been raising awareness in communities, schools and among children on the virus and ways of prevention, running awareness-raising sessions on social distance and the importance of wearing masks. 

March 25, 2021

Fast Facts About The Syrian Refugee Crisis

Get the facts about the Syrian refugee crisis—and better understand one of the greatest humanitarian challenges of our time.

Fact 1

Syria’s uprising, which started in 2011 and turned into a civil war, has created one of the worst humanitarian crises of our time. Half of the country’s pre-conflict population—an estimated 12 million people—have been forced to flee their homes.

Source: UNHCR

Fact 2

A refugee is someone who has been forced to flee their country because of persecution, war, or violence. Refugees are entitled to protection under international law.

Source: UNHCR

Fact 3

About 6 in 10 Syrians are displaced from their homes, a number unprecedented in recent history for a single country.

Source: Pew Research Center

Fact 4

More than 6.1 million Syrians are displaced within Syria.

Source: Mercy Corps

Fact 5

Globally, there are more people fleeing conflict than at any time since World War II.

Source: The New York Times

Fact 6

Syrians continue to make up the world’s largest refugee population.

Source: UNHCR

Fact 7

About half of all people affected by the Syrian refugee crisis are children.

Source: World Vision

Fact 8

Turkey shelters the largest number of Syrian refugees, currently hosting 3.6 million. Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt also host a significant number of Syrian refugees.

Source: UNHCR

Fact 9

The United States accepted 481 Syrian refugees into the country in the 2020 fiscal year. During the 2018 fiscal year, the U.S. resettled only 62 Syrian refugees.

Source: The Washington Post + The New York Times

Fact 10

Thousands of generous people have helped Syrian refugees through SEMA US’ medical missions. The fund supports refugee communities delivering critical medical support and services to Syrian refugees in Syria and neighboring countries.

As the Syrian refugee crisis continues for an 11th year, people who are affected need your help.

March 19, 2021

Ten years on, Syrian refugees’ lives in Iraq are growing tougher

Ten years on, since the advent of the Syrian crisis, life for Syrian refugee women, men, girls, and boys doesn’t get easier. In fact, with every passing year, it gets more difficult. We at SEMA US renew our commitment to support the refugee and host communities in Iraq and urge the international community to do the same.

By renewing our commitment, we pledge to continue to support refugees in Iraq to have a meaningful and dignified future through access to medical care.

Almost a quarter of a million Syrian refugees and asylum-seekers are still living in Iraq under tough living conditions since the beginning of the Syrian humanitarian crisis.

Protection risks, including child labour and early marriage, are becoming more acute, especially with the devastating impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Past gains in building self-reliance of refugees are at risk of being lost.

Meanwhile, the resources available to support them have been stretched past the breaking point. 

Access to primary health care has decreased, especially reproductive health care for women and girls, while food insecurity is on the rise. The risk of children not receiving a proper medical care is particularly high. It has been challenging for refugee children. 

Despite challenges and limitations faced in 2020, we continue to provide humanitarian medical support to the most vulnerable refugees and asylum-seekers in Iraq. We ensured the continuity of critical services and assistance, including registration and protection services, reproductive health services, malnutrition prevention for children, and awareness-raising activities to help safeguard the well-being of refugees.

We also help to set up isolation areas or hospital extensions, in addition to providing medical equipment, masks, PPEs, and medical plasticware to be used in camp-based primary healthcare clinics and hospitals.

The future of a whole generation of Syrians, as well as Syria and the region, is at stake if the Syria crisis continues, and the world does not remain engaged and committed to supporting refugees and host communities. Until the situation in Syria allows Syrian refugees to return in voluntary, safe, dignified, and well-informed manners, the international community must continue to support Syrian refugees in Iraq and worldwide to move ahead with their lives and have a better future.

Funding remains critical to address rising humanitarian and development needs. With the support of the international community, we can help create a better future for Syrian refugees in Iraq.

March 11, 2021

Reflecting on a Different and Remarkable Year of COVID-19

Thursday marks exactly one year since the coronavirus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization.

Since then, the virus has taken some 2.6 million lives around the world.

365 days ago, a cluster of COVID-19 cases shut down communities. Soon after, businesses, restaurants, schools began to follow. At that time, the coronavirus was a foreign concept. Now it is part of everyday life.

The COVID pandemic has highlighted a world of inequality, where discrimination has passed unquestioned and livelihoods have been destroyed. The threat posed by failing health systems and lack of resources is as real today as it was at the outbreak of the pandemic, especially in underdeveloped countries.

As we reflect back on the past year, it is important to note how much we’ve lost and how far we’ve come. In response to the pandemic and myriad other crises, we came together as a community in ways we never could have imagined – supporting one another, finding solutions to complex challenges, and making significant sacrifices as individuals and as an organization. None of it has been easy, and for many in our community, the consequences of the pandemic have been nothing short of tragic. We want to extend our heartfelt condolences to those of you who have suffered the loss of a loved one, and my compassion to all who have faced – and may be continuing to deal with – your own serious health issues or other significant disruption to your lives due to COVID-19. 

We remain hopeful and optimistic that we are turning a corner. While we continue to see new cases of COVID-19 in the communities we serve, we try to have adequate resources to support and provide medical care to those who become infected, through your generosity. 

Looking ahead to what comes next, we all are thinking about a return to “normal,” and what “normal” even means anymore. No matter what happens, one thing we know, for better or worse, is that things will never be the same. 

Without question, this year has tested us on many levels. There has been heartbreak and disappointment. But it also has made us stronger. I’m grateful to every one of you for all you have given of yourselves to help refugees in need through our programs and we hope you allow us to continue our mission. In so many ways, you have shown that you truly kept our organization impactful.

From all of us at SEMA US,

Thank you very much.

March 4, 2021

A decade of destruction: attacks on health care in Syria

Since the onset of the Syria conflict in March 2011, civilians have borne the brunt of the violence and withstood untold suffering. Their health facilities have been hit particularly hard, even though they are protected from attack under international law and should be safe havens in times of great need.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic spread in 2020, attacks persisted, destroying hospitals, killing medical personnel, and preventing many from seeking and receiving lifesaving medical attention. The remaining Syrian medical practitioners have risked their own lives to provide health care in the midst of horrific violence, despite a lack of equipment and medication.

Inside the destruction

  • 59% of civilians in northwest Syria have been directly impacted by an attack on health care facilities.
  • 12 million Syrians are in need of health assistance, and roughly one third require routine reproductive, maternal, neonatal and child health services.
  • 56% of Syrians fear living in proximity to a health facility given the risk of attack.
  • 84% of health workers reported that attacks on health care directly affected them, their team or their patients, and 81% know of patients or colleagues who were killed in attacks.


One in four health practitioners witnessed attacks that left facilities beyond repair or restoration, with many setting up facilities in unconventional places such as caves, private homes and underground cellars.

Only 64% of hospitals and 52% of primary health care centers are functioning across Syria, while an estimated 70% of the health workforce has fled the country.

“What we have been through has wholly affected our psyches. When you see your brother or your friend or son with their hand cut off or their leg cut off…this is a situation no mind would accept. But with the resilience of the medical staff and the resilience of those managing the work, with God’s support, the hospital remained in operation, providing these extraordinary services.” — Saleh, a health worker

How SEMA US helps

SEMA has been working in Syria supporting vulnerable communities suffering from violence and displacement. We ensure the uninterrupted flow of medicines, supplies and health care equipment. We also operate clinics and mobile teams to provide lifesaving trauma services and reproductive care. Our response to the pandemic also includes public education campaigns and training health workers in infection prevention and control.

February 25, 2021

Lebanon: Facing the daily strain of economic, medical, and psychological crises

Lebanon is facing multiple overlapping emergencies that have had dire consequences. The country’s ongoing economic crisis has made private health care prohibitively expensive, leaving more people reliant on the public health services. The COVID-19 pandemic and the massive explosion that devastated Beirut on August 4, 2020, have put additional strain on the already stretched public health system.

The country now faces a growing shortage of medical supplies and essential medicines (such as those used to treat chronic diseases), leaving the most vulnerable people at risk. Lebanon also hosts the largest number of refugees per capita in the world, which means that many of the displaced people living there have already endured traumatic experiences.

SEMA US provides free health care services, addressing the medical needs of Lebanese people, refugees, and migrant workers alike. Through our health activities in various locations, SEMA US teams are directly witnessing the deteriorating situation. We spoke with patients about their experiences and the mounting challenges they face.

“At the end of the month, there’s no money left for medicine”

Amina, 34, is a mother of four. She and her family arrived in Lebanon in 2015 from Flitah, Syria. Since then, they have been living in an informal tented settlement on the outskirts of Arsal, a town at the north of Bekaa Valley near the Syrian border.

On the day this photo was taken, Amina took her son to SEMA US’ clinic. Her youngest son, 18-month-old Ahmed, was diagnosed with anemia about four months prior. “He looked very sick. He was very pale and ate very little,” Amina. “The doctor prescribed an iron supplement and advised us to feed him more vegetables and beans, since we can no longer afford meat.” Anemia is linked to iron deficiency and is common among people who have limited access to certain types of food such as meat or peas.

Thanks to SEMA US team’s supervision and medication, Ahmed is doing so much better as of this writing.

Learn more about how you can help make a difference: www.sema-us.org

February 18, 2021

Syrian refugees suffering in Lebanon’s Arsal

Human Rights Watch has spoken out about the dire conditions Syrian refugees are suffering in the Lebanese town of Arsal, along the border with Syria. This winter is the second since their makeshift homes were dismantled and many refugees are still left without any sort of protection from brutal weather conditions.

More than 15,000 Syrian refugees in Arsal are experiencing their second winter since a 2019 order from the Higher Defense Council, which is chaired by the president and responsible for implementing national defense strategy, required them to dismantle their shelters.

The order has forced them to live without adequate roofs and insulation, exposed to harsh winter conditions, including subzero temperatures and flooding, the statement said.

Living conditions for the Syrian refugees living in Arsal forced to dismantle their shelters in 2019 remain dire. Their situation, compounded by Covid-19 movement restrictions, threatens their safety and their very lives.

Disastrous living conditions

In November and December 2020, researchers returned to Arsal to interview seven refugees first interviewed during the summer of 2019 to assess the impact of the demolitions on their standard of living, and in particular on their access to adequate shelter during the winter months.

The refugees described dire living conditions. They also said they lack information and resources to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the statement said.

All seven refugees interviewed described harsh weather conditions and inadequate building materials. Due to flooding and heavy rains, four said that mold had formed on the wood used to rebuild the top portions of the shelters. A few said the mold caused health problems for children and asthmatic relatives.

Call for accessible health care to be provided

Despite their dire living conditions, “none of the Syrian refugees interviewed said it was safe enough for them to return to Syria.”

Donor organizations should ensure that everyone’s right to accessible medical care and services is fully protected. 

This should include increased support for taking care of Syrian refugees to protect vulnerable families from diseases and to enable them to live in safety and dignity. Facing inadequate healthcare, COVID-19 restrictions, and rampant inflation, Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population urgently needs assistance, especially during these harsh winter months.

February 18, 2021

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon three times more likely to die with COVID-19

Palestinian refugees in Lebanon are three times more likely to die with COVID-19 than the population as a whole, according to U.N. figures that highlight the pandemic’s outsized impact on the community.

An estimated 207,000 Palestinian refugees live in Lebanon after being driven from their homes or fleeing the conflict, the vast majority in cramped camps where social distancing is impossible.

Since Lebanon registered its first case, about 5,800 have been infected with the coronavirus and about 200 of them have died. That is three times the COVID-19 mortality rate for the country as a whole of just over 1%.

Most Palestinians who died after contracting the disease in Lebanon had health conditions such as cardiac or pulmonary issues, which are aggravated by poverty and conditions in the camps. Cramped living conditions and the need to go out to work meant 

Lebanese authorities bar Palestinians from obtaining Lebanese nationality or working in many skilled professions, so the refugees largely make a living doing low-paid labour in construction and crafts, or as street vendors.The focus here is on the economic elements — people go out because they can’t afford to go stay home.

Lebanon has been hammered over the past year by an acute financial crisis and a massive explosion in the capital, as well as facing one of the region’s highest coronavirus infection rates. Nine out of 10 were living in extreme poverty last year.

SEMA US has expanded its healthcare programs in Lebanon, just in time to respond to the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 response primarily focuses on increasing access to healthcare for vulnerable communities including Syrian and Palestinian refugees, and will involve adapting medical activities in its own facilities, health promotion in the community, and supporting hospitals with their fight against the outbreak.

February 5, 2021

Iraq warns of reimposing curfew as it reports 1,317 new COVID-19 cases

Iraqi Health Minister Hassan Al-Tamimi has warned that the health authorities might reimpose restrictions, including a nationwide curfew, if coronavirus cases continue to increase.

“We warn against an increase in infections and deaths due to failure to adhere to health-protective measures. There is a possibility to reimpose curfew if the number of infections continues to increase,” Al-Tamimi said in a press conference on Wednesday.

“The infections began to increase during the past two weeks, and reached yesterday to about 2.5 percent of the daily tests,” he said, adding that the Iraqi authorities have warned of taking legal actions against violations of health-protective measures.

Later in the day, a statement by the Ministry of Health reported 1,317 new Covid-19 cases, bringing the total nationwide number of cases to 623,072.

It also reported 11 new deaths, raising the fatality toll to 13,079.

It said that 1,275 cases recovered during the day, bringing the total recoveries to 595,869.

A total of 5,752,920 tests have been carried out across the country since the outbreak of the disease in February 2020, with 46,583 done during the day, according to the statement.

Iraq has taken a series of measures to curb the pandemic since the first coronavirus case appeared in the country.

January 28, 2021

Coronavirus Dispatch: Horror scenes in Lebanon intensive care wards

Lebanon’s intensive care wards are gripped with dreaded scenes, leaving the doctors and staff with no choice but to make life and death decisions about who should receive scarce medical resources and choose between two people on who to save and who to leave dying. 

Virus-stricken people are gasping for breath, in the horror hospital scenes as rising cases, following Christmas holidays, swamped the scanty medical resources. The medics say they are on the edge of “the Italy scenario”. More than 1,000 people have died of COVID-19 in Lebanon in January. 

“The country is falling apart,”

While many countries have grappled with hospital bed shortages and the need to prioritise care, Lebanon’s response has been hobbled by the more than year-long financial crisis and the blast at Beirut port, which devastated the city, partly destroying four hospitals.

Two weeks into a strict lockdown, inconsistently enforced, Lebanon’s intensive care units are 94 percent full. The entire country is affected.

Some hospitals had to treat patients in the hallways and in the emergency department entrance. Patients admitted to hectic emergency wards alone face the prospect of dying far from family. Medical staff just hold iPads up to the dying so they can see their families one last time. 

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