There is a name whispered in opposition circles in Syria — an insurance policy against what after three years of conflict seems inevitable. If you are injured very badly, there are two imperatives: Get to the Jordanian border. Then, get to Umm ‘Abdallah.
“She’s the one,” says Muhammad ‘Ali Shamboun, a limping young man from Dar‘a now living in Amman. He motions to the unimposing woman, about ten feet away, whose succor he has been awaiting for two years. “If she says, ‘Do this operation,’ it’s done.”
Umm ‘Abdallah is one of Jordan’s new aid power brokers: a gateway to humanitarian services that are too scarce to be available to all. In 2013, 25,000 war wounded fled across the border and into the 110-bed Ramtha Government Hospital, overwhelming the staff’s capacity. Umm ‘Abdallah, an energetic Syrian expatriate with perfect posture and a constantly buzzing cell phone, evacuated a lucky 85 to 95 patients each month to a private hospital in Amman.
When she began to work — the first patient arrived on January 4, 2012 — the injured sometimes took two weeks to reach her from inside Syria. But as the conflict wore on the channels grew more efficient and direct. Now, if Umm ‘Abdallah reads about shelling or barrel bombs on Twitter, her phone starts ringing with tales of new cases minutes later.
Along the border and at Ramtha hospital, a network of doctors watches for patients whom Umm ‘Abdallah may be able to help; they send the case details, photos and records by WhatsApp. When there is a fit, Umm ‘Abdallah sends her ambulance.
From there, patients are driven to the al-Jazira private hospital in Amman’s Shumaysani neighborhood, where Umm ‘Abdallah has her own wing: 35 regular beds and five intensive care units. A Jordanian organization pays the rent for the floor, and donors in the Gulf and elsewhere pick up the other bills. Umm ‘Abdallah covers the salaries of doctors who make rounds or perform surgery. Syrian physicians — prohibited from working officially — pitch in unpaid.
“All the funding is private,” she explains between breathless phone calls and urgent visits to her office inside the hospital. Kuwaiti donors offer funds; individuals also contribute. Patient costs range from 500 Jordanian dinars ($700) to 22,000 ($31,000) depending on the severity of the injury, but the average, she says, the tab is between 1,500 and 1,600 dinars ($2,260). That translates into more than $2 million a year.
Thirteen-year-old ‘Abdallah is among the lucky ones here, waiting patiently with his mother for the doctor to stop by. It was 9:30 am when a barrel bomb hit their home in Dar‘a, shredding his leg. The boy was smuggled across the border but it was too late; they had to amputate. “I want to go back to school,” he says now, proudly showing off his new prosthetics. School is what he wants because “everybody wants to be a doctor after this situation,” his mother adds.
When he is finally discharged, ‘Abdallah will move to the second half of Umm ‘Abdallah’s operation: a string of rehabilitation centers housed in regular apartments. Patients are grouped by gender or condition: There is an apartment for young men, for spinal patients, for children with amputated limbs.
In the amputations apartment not far away, a former English teacher named Manal begins the children’s daily routine at 10 am. By noon, sixth grader Khalid is among the dozen or so patients doing exercises with Abu Hasan, a freelance Jordanian physical therapist with 28 years of experience and a degree from Bulgaria. Then on to English classes and painting; Manal beams recounting how Khalid memorized the whole alphabet, A to Z, in just 24 hours. Khalid and his brother Qasim, a third grader, usually live in Zaatari but Umm ‘Abdallah’s group made arrangements for him to receive care here. They will return to the camp once discharged.
Although the patients here are often far better off, there are still uncertainties. Patients like ‘Abdallah and Khalid have been fitted for prosthetics that their young bodies will quickly outgrow, likely after they leave the embrace of Umm ‘Abdallah’s patronage. Meanwhile, for current patients, there are funding gaps. Donors can have a direct influence on which cases are treated — and not, meaning that some fees are left for patients. After treating 544 patients in two years, Umm ‘Abdallah says she is nearly half a million dollars in debt. Nor is the program’s continuation always assured; another similar operation, funded by a Saudi benefactor, shut down abruptly in the spring when donors backed out.
Stories about varying quality of service among rehabilitation centers also spread quickly through Amman. Another similar operation stopped its cooperation with Umm ‘Abdallah in 2013, after having concerns about the transparency of her funding.
And then there are the cold cases, like Muhammad from Dar‘a, who connected with Umm ‘Abdallah but whose injuries always seem to take second priority to the constant stream of life-or-death cases arriving. Muhammad busted his leg — he is not sure exactly what the injury is — while trying to cross the Jordanian border in 2012, and has been living in an injured apartment since then. He has had no luck gaining access to public health care.
And so he waits for Umm ‘Abdallah: “For the wounded here,” he says, “she’s the one responsible.”