Reports | 16 01 2023Mahmoud Abu Ras
Using starch wheat instead of formula was the only solution for Kafa al-Jasim to feed her child at Daewat Khayr camp that’s close to Maabatli, in the northern countryside of Aleppo. “Our living situation is very bad. We can’t afford to buy bread on a daily basis, and we’re going through tough conditions. How can we secure milk for our child, while humanitarian organizations haven’t offered us any aid?!”.
Kafa al-Jasim has two children. One is a 40-day old baby, and the second is one year old. She’s living in a tent with her husband, who’s suffering from a disability that doesn’t allow him to move or work. The family doesn’t have a source of income that would enable them to buy formula for their baby.
Those who are displaced in the camps of northern Syria complain that humanitarian aid doesn’t include formula for babies, while nursing mothers can’t normally breastfeed their babies and the prices of formula available in the market are high.
There are nearly 40 babies, in Daewat Khayr camp that hosts 110 families displaced from different areas, that don’t get enough breast milk. According to camp manager Abu Yamen, babies don’t receive any aid in this regard; and humanitarian organizations don’t evaluate either their situation or their mothers’.
No Formula in Camps
Camp residents live in tough conditions, like shortage of all life necessities and malnutrition among nursing mothers and children, that make them in need of alternatives for breastmilk. However, many camp residents in the area complain that they don’t receive free formula from organizations that are interested in this kind of humanitarian aid.
Kafa is not the only one facing this problem. Abu Mahmoud, a grandfather of babies, asserts that no organizations providing formula or aid for nursing mothers have entered the camp. Adults suffering from malnutrition and poor financial resources are forced to feed their children with things that aren’t suitable for their age.
Milk Alternatives in Camps
Powder baby formula prices vary, depending on the type and the quality. The 400-gm carton costs from 4 to 5 USD, while the one-liter cow milk carton costs 12 TL.
The cost of living increases, as babies need more than one formula carton each month. Whereas families almost don’t have a source of income, they find themselves forced to use alternatives to milk.
Umm Omar, who’s living in Daewat Khayr camp feeds her baby with boiled rice and wheat starch. She can’t entirely depend on breast milk, and she can’t buy formula, so the baby gets intestinal diseases so often. “My baby is five months old, and I don’t have the resources to buy formula from pharmacies because of its high price,” she explains.
“I boil rice, strain it, and then give it to my baby. I also sometimes mix starch with water, put it in the feeding bottle, and make my baby drink it. Other times, I just use water and sugar. He always gets an inflammation in the gut, as the food I provide him isn’t suitable for his age,” she tells us about the alternatives she uses.
Umm Omar asserts that most nursing mothers in the camp are poorly nourished, as the majority are incapable of buying nutritious food like fruits and meat, which is reflected in women's ability to feed their babies enough of their breast milk.
Umm Abdulrahaman, who’s living in the same camp, feels sorry for her 10-week-old baby. She can’t secure him enough milk, and she can’t provide him with other necessities like diapers and medicine. “People in the camp can’t make ends meet, let alone afford to buy milk. My baby is constantly crying. He’s hungry, because my milk is not enough for him. We can hardly get him diapers. One kilogram of diapers costs 50 TL,” she says.
Effects of Alternatives on babies
Using alternatives to baby formula has caused children many health problems.
“All the alternatives families use to feed their babies are not suitable and can cause malnutrition problems. They’re low in protein, calories, vitamins, and mineral salts. And therefore, babies can definitely be malnourished,” Yussuf Salim, a pediatrician, comments on the alternatives camp residents use to feed their children.
Maternal and Child Health Centre in Shifa Hospital in Afrin, northern Aleppo, also commented on the effects babies can be subject to as a result of consuming rice water and wheat starch instead of breast milk. The center explained that such alternatives can cause calcium and iron deficiency, and weaken the immune system against viral diseases. It can also have a psychological effect on babies, as breastfeeding is the affectionate relationship between a mother and her baby. It’s best if nursing mothers can be better nurtured, so that babies can have breastmilk.
Organizations Can’t Provide Milk
Reduced funding faced by some organizations in northwestern Syria has led to a reduction in the organizations’ activities and services in the area. Their services have been limited to small groups that are seen to be the most in need. Over the past few years, several organizations have stopped giving milk and focused only on providing nursing mothers with the nutrition they need to breastfeed their babies.
WIFAK Humanitarian Association funds have been reduced, and so have been the services they provide for nursing mothers. “Years of war and displacement have exhausted nursing mothers and children, and resulted in a large number of malnutrition cases,” Field Manager Zuhair Khanshur tells Rozana about their work and the changes that came up.
“As the United Nations doesn’t encourage giving baby milk, the association’s approach has been to support women; and to provide them with the nutrition they need so that they can breastfeed their children. Since 2018, we’ve been working on providing nursing mothers with one thousand baskets each month. But after the funds have been reduced, we can no longer secure more than 150/200 baskets each month. That reduction has forced us to focus only on the cases of malnutrition, and the cases most in need,” Khanshur adds.
He asserts that all organizations working in the area conduct surveys and produce statistics on the cases of malnutrition among children and mothers. According to Khanshur, the organizations try to provide as much help as they can, but the reduced funds sometimes get in the way of that.
He pointed out that the problem can be solved by providing both pregnant and nursing women with either money or food baskets, so that they’d be able to produce breast milk (which is better than powdered baby formula), in addition to campaigns raising awareness on reproductive health; family planning; and the risk of recurrent pregnancy.
The UN had warned, through UNICEF’s Middle East chief, that more than 12.3 million Syrian children are in need of aid. “It’s the highest number recorded since the beginning of the crisis,” she stated.