Um Qassem had been working as a midwife in Al-Qaim city on the Iraq-Syria border since 2003. She adored her role helping women “through the delivery and promising them a beautiful, healthy baby.”
But everything changed in 2014 when Daesh stormed the country, and the hospital. Suddenly, Um Qassem faced recruitment attempts, intimidation and an ongoing struggle to preserve her patients’ wellbeing.
Daesh forced the maternity staff to operate out of one small room, forcing women to pay 21,000 ISIL dinars (approximately GBP £30) for delivery services that had previously been free to access.
“One woman walked in without money, she was in a critical condition and needed to go into the delivery room immediately. The head midwife that Daesh had appointed refused to let her in, so I threatened to quit if we did not admit the woman. I knew that I was risking my life by such action, but the woman and her baby would have died if I had not spoken up,” said Um Qassem.
From that point onwards, Um Qassem played a crucial role in defending the province’s mothers, at significant personal risk.
Over the course of the following year, she secretly treated dozens of women who came to her hospital, delivering babies while her boss was occupied and distributing labour-inducing pills to expectant mothers to prevent unnecessary caesarean sections.
“ISIL constantly threatened me, my husband, and my family, as well as other doctors and nurses. We were working under fear; I was emotionally devastated but I had to put on a brave face for my patients who are bringing life in such a challenging environment.”
Many of the women who were not fortunate enough to receive her help suffered at the hands of Daesh ‘doctors,’ who were eager to practice surgery. They are still living with the consequences, with the hospital seeing increasing numbers of former maternity patients re-admitted due to problems with subsequent pregnancies.
The risk to patients was intensified by Daesh’s occupation and destruction of the hospital infrastructure.
The maternity ward that Um Qassem helped oversee was turned into an emergency room for ISIL’s fighters. When Daesh fled to their former caliphate in Raqqa, the militants stole all of the hospital’s equipment and then set fire to the building. The damage was extensive.
“I felt as if my world had just fallen apart. This hospital was my home. I had been working here for 15 years,” Um Qassem said.
Thankfully, the defeat of Daesh in Iraq and Syria has enabled the former medical staff to reclaim and rehabilitate the hospital, with the support of NGOs and international organisations.
The United National Population Fund (UNFPA) has been supporting Al-Qaim hospital since early December 2017, reconstructing the operating theatres and providing financial and logistical support to the hospital’s reproductive health team.
Getting the maternity ward back in action was an even greater challenge. Daesh’s pillaging of the delivery room had left it void of equipment and was non-operational. The solution came in the form of a well-equipped mobile delivery unit, provided by UNFPA, which enabled the midwifery team to manage uncomplicated deliveries as well as Caesarean sections.
With the help of the UNFPA, the medical team at Al Qaim Hospital has assisted in 378 normal deliveries and childbirth services are free of charge. The UNFPA is also working with the Government on the roll out of a countrywide midwifery training programme as well as pre-service trainings and in-service trainings.
UNFPA’s programmes help protect vulnerable women and girls around the world, to donate, visit: https://www.unfpa.org/donate.