Middle East

Syria conflict: Qadour family's scars begin to heal

Media captionCaroline Hawley meets two young Syrian sisters living with the scars of war

Three years ago, a shell hit the home of the Qadour family in Homs, Syria, setting off a fire that destroyed their house and injured the children as they slept.

Recovering in Jordan, they are being treated by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) surgeons. Caroline Hawley first met them two years ago, and has gone back to see how they are coping.

Six-year old Qamar Qadour slowly and deliberately draws what begins as a flower and turns, on the page, into the face of her adoring and much-loved father, who saved her from the fire.

Abu Abdul Malik had rushed into the children's bedroom to rescue them when the shell hit their home, setting the bedclothes of Qamar and her little sister, Rahaf, alight and causing third-degree burns over much of their bodies. Their old brother, Abdul Malik, escaped with minor injuries.

Image caption The Qadour family have moved to a rented home north of Amman, but are still relying on handouts

For Qamar, drawing is a new-found skill.

The skin on her fingers and the back of her hands is still badly scarred but, after two operations, MSF surgeons have succeeded in restoring movement to her small hands and she can now use them to feed herself, as well as write and draw.

Between them, members of the Qadour family have now had more that 20 operations - they have actually lost count - but they are nowhere near the end of the long road to recovery.

And they are just one family, unlucky enough to have had their future transformed in a few terrible seconds but lucky enough to have - at least - found the care they need.

Breakthrough

Sitting on cushions on the floor of her home, dressed in purple tracksuit, bright pink hair-band and plastic necklace, Qamar gives a determined smile as she turns from drawing her family to practising writing the alphabet.

She says it is much better being at home than in hospital: "Here I can go down to the street to play with my neighbours. We play catch. I'm fast."

That, too, is a breakthrough in her recovery.

Image caption Qamar used to be so upset by her appearance that she refused to look at herself in the mirror

When I first met Qamar, she had thick scar tissue running from her nose to her mouth. She refused to look at herself in the mirror, and she and Rahaf were both so self-conscious of their injuries that they were frightened to go out of doors.

"They've been through too much. But psychologically, they are better than before," says their mother, Umm Abdul Malik.

"Before they didn't want to see anyone. But now, if they see people, they no longer run away or hide."

Her biggest concern as they grow up is their appearance.

"There's a lot more to do. I want their faces to be healed, to be like they were before," she says.

Face mask

For the time being, Qamar has been discharged from hospital so that she can recover.

Surgeons have removed some of the scar tissue on her face, replacing it with a skin graft.

But she has to wear a special silicone pressure mask to help the new skin heal and to prepare her for future surgery. The mask has slits for her eyes, nose and mouth and her brother teases her for looking like a "bank robber".

Media captionDr Moukhallad Saud of Medecins Sans Frontieres shows Caroline Hawley around his ward

Qamar is supposed to wear it every night and for several hours during the day. But she loathes it, and whimpers as her father puts it on.

A big-hearted man with a ready smile, Abu Abdul Malik is the children's constant companion through endless hospital appointments, while their mother takes care of their new twin baby brothers.

In the latest of several operations, five-year old Rahaf is having surgery to prepare her face for a skin graft.

"Our aim is to restore function," says her surgeon, Dr Moukhallad Saud, a specialist in burns victims who has also operated on Qamar.

"But the function of the face is to be seen by people. We don't have yet have the best result, but we will continue."

'Marvellous family'

Increasing numbers of his patients are children from Syria, as well as Iraq and Yemen.

Image caption The MSF surgical team in Amman is doing more than 40 operations a week

It is tough, emotionally-draining work, with the reward of knowing that you are making a real difference.

"Inside the operating theatre, I have to block off my feelings," Dr Saud says.

"I need to have a hard heart and a sharp knife. It's difficult, but somewhere inside I'm happy that I can treat them."

Next into the operating theatre are two Syrian sisters, aged 11 and five, who had even more serious burns than Qamar and Rahaf, caused by a barrel bomb.

"The things you see here make you weep," says nurse Khawla Abdallah. "Obviously, you can't cry in front of the patients. So you cry later at home."

The Qadour family's plight, and the stoic way they have dealt with it, has moved staff throughout the hospital where they are being treated.

"They are a marvellous family. They are very kind," says Iraqi anaesthetist Dr Hadeel Anani.

"I think the parents have done a very good job with the children to enable them to overcome the trauma. What happened to them is a tragedy. But unfortunately it's not very rare."

With the current turmoil in the Middle East - and the length of treatment each patient requires - MSF staff are likely to be busy for many years, if not decades.

Image caption Abu Abdul Malik says it is impossible to describe how it feels to see your children suffer

"We need 100 MSFs to cover what's going on. It's horrible," says Dr Anani.

As Rahaf comes round from the anaesthetic she cries, for the first time.

"I can't describe how it feels to see your children suffer," says her father, stroking the scars on her forehead.

"Their future will be difficult," he adds. "Maybe when the grow up they'll feel different from other girls. But I thank God for the treatment they've had.

"There are lots of Syrians who need it and can't get it."