Born with a congenital heart defect that starves her body of oxygen, leaving her desperately weak and turning her pale skin blue, 24-year-old Syrian refugee Walaa is no stranger to hospitals.

Three years ago, her family fled Syria amid fierce airstrikes after two years of internal displacement. The journey to safety in Jordan – home to over 673,000 Syrian refugees – left her so exhausted that she was rushed to the emergency room the moment they crossed the border.

Since then she has required regular check-ups at the local hospital, provided at a subsidised rate. But earlier this year a sharp hike in medical costs for Syrian refugees – up to five times their previous level – forced Walaa to start taking dangerous risks with her health.

More than 85 per cent of Syrian refugees in Jordan live below the poverty line, trying to survive on less than US$3 per day. With many families struggling to afford daily essentials such as food, water and rent, few are able to meet the rising costs of medical care.

“My daughter’s condition needs to be treated at a hospital, but we can’t afford these costs every time,” explains her mother Rima, 45. “In the past we used to pay just a small fee at the hospital, but now we are paying a lot.”

Walaa lies in hospital surrounded by health workers | The cost of survival

Rising medical costs for refugees in Jordan has forced 24-year-old Walaa to skip essential check-ups, putting her life in danger. © UNHCR/M. Hawari

No longer able to afford the regular hospital check-ups Walaa needs, the family started visiting a local doctor to prescribe medication directly.

But when Walaa recently went to the hospital for her first proper check-up since the costs went up, tests revealed that oxygen levels in her blood were dangerously low and she had developed a chest infection. She was immediately admitted to a specialist care unit for monitoring overnight.

“After the doctors checked her today, they said she must always be monitored at a hospital,” Rima explained.

While the cost of Walaa’s overnight admission will be covered by UNHCR, she still worries that her family cannot afford the regular check-ups.

“I do not like to make my family pay any expenses, because they have lots of other responsibilities like the rent of the house and the bills – our financial situation is bad,” Walaa says.
Walaa and her mother in the hospital | The cost of survival

Walaa worries about how her family will afford daily living costs. © UNHCR/M. Hawari

Already burdened by daily living costs, refugee families like Walaa’s across the Middle East are now struggling to protect themselves against brutal winter conditions.

Many families have no option but to live in makeshift shelters or in abandoned, unheated buildings in urban areas. The elderly, young children and those with serious medical conditions like Walaa’s are particularly at risk as temperatures plummet below zero.

UNHCR is on the ground helping displaced families prepare for the bitterly cold months ahead, but the agency is critically short of funds to respond.

Without the support she needs, Walaa fears the impact freezing temperatures will have on her health.

“I can’t live like ordinary people, like those who run, walk… I can’t do any of this,” Walaa says. “I hope to recover from my illness and not feel tired again and live like any healthy girl.”

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A young boy walks home with bread in the snow | The cost of survival

Refugees across the Middle East are bracing for harsh winter weather. © UNHCR/A. McConnell

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