The mobile medical unit of the Order of Malta in Lebanon leaves its base on its way to the region of Arsal, on the Syrian border, where the Syrian refugee camps are located. Twice a week, the bus carrying two doctors and two nurses travels through the region visiting the camps one by one, providing medicine and treatment. The Arsal area is under army control because of tensions between the two countries.

Photos and captions • © Didier Bizet

The economic and health crisis in Lebanon is worsening by the day. Though the country is now enjoying fragile peace, the wars the Lebanese have lived through have typically left a glimmer of hope, giving the people a certain amount of courage. But the current crisis has plunged the eighteen communities which make up the country into uncharted territory. The Lebanese pound has collapsed, more than 70% of the population is now living below the poverty line, chronic disease is soaring throughout the country, importers are no longer supplying medicine, pharmacies are closing one after another, and the most common drugs such as paracetamol are nowhere to be found (or exorbitantly priced), even in the hospitals to which in any case, what with the shortage of fuel, vulnerable populations struggle to have access. For the four million Lebanese and the million and a half Syrian refugees, the only way to obtain free healthcare and medicine is to go to the health centres financed by local non-governmental organisations (NGOs). The Order of Malta in Lebanon has also chosen to take to the road several times a week to visit the refugee camps, to help the refugees but also the Lebanese population living in remote villages in insecure areas near the borders with Syria and Israel. The organisation has introduced medical buses which travel around the country in response to the crisis. In each small “mobile hospital” general practitioners, gynaecologists, paediatricians and pharmacists work together, treating up to 250 patients a day, distributing medicines sent from abroad, for example from France through the charity Tulipe. This photo editorial starts in Tulipe’s warehouse in the Paris suburbs and continues in the company of the Order of Malta in Lebanon. This is the organisation I joined up with in the summer of 2021, on the long road to providing healthcare.

Translated from the French by Fay Guerry

The NGO’s medical bus has just arrived in the camp for the morning, as Syrian refugees gather to wait for the medical unit to be set up. Between fifty and seventy people are treated daily in each camp. Around 200 patients are also treated in the nearby Lebanese villages.

In one of many Syrian refugee camps in the Arsal region, refugees wait in the shade out of the intense heat, which can soar up to 40°C in July and August.

A Syrian infant is given emergency treatment for jaundice in the medical bus in the region of Kefraya near the Syrian border.

Both compartments in the bus are put to use when it is busy. Sometimes the patients, whether they are Syrian or Lebanese, come to talk to a doctor without a specific medical reason. Many Syrian refugees are out of touch with healthcare realities.

A Syrian woman is examined by a doctor. She will go away with some medication to treat her ear infection and must come back next week to have her ear checked again.

In one of the Syrian camps in the Arsal region, the NGOs working there, which can be Muslim or sometimes Christian, such as the Order of Malta in Lebanon, work and cross paths.  The Christian NGOs are generally well accepted, in spite of the reluctance of certain people to accept aid from non-Muslims, in particular in certain Lebanese Muslim villages.

A Syrian woman is pictured in her tent, medicine in hand. Living conditions for Syrians in Lebanon are desperate. Most have no valid documentation and so are not registered as refugees. They have to stay in their camps. Some of them have not left their camps for ten years, since the conflict in their country began.

A Syrian woman is happy that her baby has been treated in the medical bus operated by NGO the Order of Malta in Lebanon in the region of Kefraya on the Syrian border.

In this Syrian refugee camp in the Arsal region, on the Syrian border, this Lebanese patient comes to see the doctor each time the bus comes to the camp.

On the Syrian border, the bus arrives in the town of Arsal to treat Lebanese patients in need of care or medicine. The Order of Malta in Lebanon, one of the rare Christian NGOs, has been well received for years in the predominantly Muslim villages in the east of Lebanon. Not long ago, Daesh had bases just a few kilometres from the village.

In the town of Arsal, Lebanese patients, both Christian and Muslim, wait for the medical bus which provides care for the poorest people in the region who cannot afford to buy medicine. Chronic diseases, illnesses caused by malnutrition and lack of sanitation but also cancer, which is more and more common, are dealt with in this mobile unit. Patients are then sent to the region’s hospitals with a prescription so they can receive free treatment and follow-up care.

In the region of Kobayat, on the Syrian border, a Lebanese man and his son, recently injured in a car accident, consult the NGO’s medical team to obtain more effective treatment as the child is in constant pain.

In the region of Kobayat, on the Syrian border, a destitute Lebanese woman has come to fetch her medicine. The team take her blood pressure due to her extreme fatigue, a symptom of the stress caused by the crisis.

In the region of Khaldieh, near Tripoli – one of the poorest cities in Lebanon –, Syrian refugee families leave with their medication.

The medical bus leaves for another Syrian camp in the region of Krefraya, on the Syrian border.

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