From weakness to strength; marking World Breastfeeding Week

The story of a mother’s determination to grow a healthy baby

Sandra Awad and Rasha Alsabbagh
03 August 2022

Rural Damascus, Syria, 31 July 2022 - “When I hold and breastfeed him, the world disappears, and I feel I’m far away from any sorrows,” said Halimeh, looking at her three-month-old son Mohamed. When she was six months pregnant, Halimeh’s husband left the country, escaping the violence. “Ali has seen his son only through photos and videos I send him,” she explains, sighing deeply.

After her husband left, pregnant Halimeh lost her appetite and began to lose weight. Her psychological state was also badly affected. “I had no clue on what to do. There were no doctors in our village and transportation to Damascus was difficult and expensive,” said Ibtisam, her mother-in-law. Halimeh has stayed with her in-laws since her husband Ali left. They live in Abbadeh village in East Ghouta of Rural Damascus, Syria. The area has been severely impacted during the years of conflict.

In December 2021, UNICEF started a new project that provides vulnerable women and children with basic health and nutrition services in the southern part of Syria. Children and mothers are reached through a fixed health centre in Harasta.  In addition to this, seven mobile medical teams - three covering East Ghouta of Rural Damascus, two in rural Dar’a and two in rural Quneitra, south Syria – provide services.

Women gathered in a clinic
UNICEF/Syria/2022/Johnny Shahan
UNICEF -supported mobile health workers conduct an awareness session on exclusive breastfeeding in the municipality of Abbadeh village of East Ghouta, Rural Damascus, on 31 July 2022. The mobile medical team, supported by UNICEF, offers children and women basic health and nutrition support there.

As soon as Ibtisam heard of a UNICEF -supported mobile medical team visiting their village twice a week, she approached it with her daughter-in-law. Halimeh was diagnosed with acute malnutrition when she was six months pregnant. A medical follow-up plan was set up for her and she received vitamins and curative micronutrients regularly.

Doctors having a baby's length
UNICEF/Syria/2022/Johnny Shahan
Mohamed, 3 months old, is measured by a UNICEF -supported health worker in the municipality of Abbadeh village, East Ghouta, Rural Damascus, Syria, on 31 July 2022.
A doctor writing information of a baby held by woman in a clinic
UNICEF/Syria/2022/Johnny Shahan
Mohamed, 3 months old, held by his grandmother Ibtisam during a health checkup at the municipality of Abbadeh village, East Ghouta, Rural Damascus, Syria, on 31 July 2022. A mobile medical team, supported by UNICEF, offers children and women basic health and nutrition support there.

Months later, Halimeh gave birth to a healthy baby boy. “Mohamed weighed three and a half kilograms despite the weak state Halimeh was in,” Ibtisam said. Halimeh had benefitted from individual counselling and group awareness sessions about the optimal practices of infant and young child feeding – and she began to breastfeed Mohamed immediately.

A 3 months old baby boy
UNICEF/Syria/2022/Johnny Shahan
Mohamed, 3 months old, in his grandparents’ house in East Ghouta, Rural Damascus, Syria, on 31 July 2022. He depends on exclusive breastfeeding for his nutrition.

Despite realizing the importance of breastfeeding to the child’s immune system and growth, Halimeh woke up one day feeling hesitant about whether she should keep on breastfeeding Mohamed. “I felt weak, depressed and kept losing weight,” she said.

“But before switching to baby formula, I visited the mobile team for a consultation.” The team found baby Mohamed in great shape, but his mother still suffered from malnutrition.

“I left empowered with more knowledge and determined to continue breastfeeding Mohamed,”

Halimeh, Mohamed's mother

 A health worker from the UNICEF -supported mobile team spoke with Halimeh, reminded her of the benefits and correct way of breastfeeding.

“I left empowered with more knowledge and determined to continue breastfeeding Mohamed,” she said. “When I think about wanting to reunite with my husband, I feel so sad that I lose my appetite, but when I look at my baby, I’m reminded I need to become stronger for him,” Halimeh added. She regularly visits the mobile team once a week for follow up and to receive her treatment and advice.

“The team has stood by my side since my pregnancy and helped me take the first steps in motherhood. Without their support, I might have surrendered long time ago,” Halimeh said.

Child holding a baby
UNICEF/Syria/2022/Johnny Shahan
Mohamed, 3 months old, held by his relative in his grandparents’ house in East Ghouta, Rural Damascus, Syria, on 31 July 2022.

In 2022, UNICEF has reached 22,000 women with guidance on infant and young child feeding practices through 40 fixed health centres and 38 mobile teams in Damascus. The support was possible through funding from the Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance, Governments of Canada and Japan and Kuwait Fund for Arab Economic Development.