His Leg, Her Flight

She took her son from Syria to Jordan to seek treatment. Despite repeated medical advice to amputate, she tried and tried again to save her son’s war-injured leg at all costs. “I don’t care about my house or my land,” said the erstwhile millionaire mother. “I only care about my children.”

Situated south of Damascus and about 13 kilometers (8 miles) north of the Jordanian border, Daraa was a rich city in southwestern Syria. Fathea Hseen al-Ibcahen, 50, and her three children once lived there.

Fathea’s family was whole until her husband started a second family with another woman. Defying the social mores, she insisted on a divorce. After the divorce, she began to provide for her extended family of 14.

Her family produced and sold hand-made soap. Business was good, and the family enjoyed a comfortable living.

But on the evening of May 28, 2013, about two years into the Syrian civil war, a missile reduced her home to rubble in the blink of an eye. Her son, Mohammed Targ Dahdal, was buried under debris. The family and neighbors hustled to dig him out and rushed him to a hospital.

Mohammed had received many pieces of shrapnel, and his right leg was badly fractured below the knee. After 27 days in the hospital, the doctors advised an amputation. Fathea and Mohammed, then 14 years old, couldn’t accept the grim medical advice and decided against the surgery.

But it became apparent to the family that the missile had shattered more than Mohammed’s leg—their tranquil life had gone up in smoke as well. In June 2013, Fathea took her son and 200,000 American dollars across the border to Ramtha, Jordan, in search of medical treatment for him.

Mohammed Targ Dahdal recuperates after surgery in September 2017. At his bedside are his mother, Fathea Hseen al-Ibcahen (center), and Tzu Chi volunteer Hana Sabat. Chen Chiou Hwa

For her son

Six months later, still in Ramtha, the two of them had used up their money, but Mohammed’s leg was not cured. Next came a visit with a Médecins Sans Frontières team at the border between Jordan and Syrian. The team examined and treated Mohammed, but that did not help him much either. The doctors told him that he would not be able to walk again—in fact he would need an amputation.

“No way!” Mohammed said resolutely. “I believe I’ll walk again. Over my dead body will I agree to an amputation—I’ll let go of my leg only if it falls off by itself!”

Fathea at that time was receiving chemotherapy for bone cancer, and she often suffered high fevers. Despite her own medical challenges, she was firmly against the notion of amputating her son’s leg. She even wanted to sell one of her kidneys to pay to have the leg treated instead of removed. Given her condition, the doctors adamantly advised against that radical idea.

Fathea’s family owned a tract of land where they cultivated olive trees for their soap business. Now that she was out of money, she sold that land so she and Mohammed could continue to receive treatment. She also applied for aid from charitable organizations, which sent representatives to visit their apartment in Ramtha. Ironically, the neatness in the home and the fragrance of hand-made soap—hardly signs of financial distress—led the representatives to disqualify their applications.

Fathea stopped her monthly treatment for her bone cancer so she could save 180 Jordanian dinar (US$254) a month to use for her son. She knew that her cancer was now deep in her bones, so she suspected that she probably would not live much longer anyway. In the meantime, Mohammed’s situation had also deteriorated. Things were not looking good. She had to find help.

She thought of calling Tzu Chi, a charity that had refused to help her before, but she had lost her faith in that foundation. At that time she trusted only Allah.

Ironically, Tzu Chi had not refused to help her. Rather, a third party had given her a false message that led her to think that Tzu Chi had refused her.

The story went like this: On December 4, 2015, Tzu Chi volunteers from Amman went to Ramtha to visit the families they were helping and to distribute daily necessities to them. Fathea met the volunteers and very shyly asked them to help her, not with regular stipends but with her cancer medications. Chen Chiou Hwa (陳秋華), head of the Jordan Tzu Chi chapter, agreed to help her on the spot.

Unaccustomed to such a warm reception, she was almost too excited to breathe. She took a sip of water and rested a little to regain her composure. Then she told Chen that she had been a millionaire back in Syria, where she and her family had lived in a very large house, but she had lost everything. She had been fighting bone and throat cancers for more than two years. She had asked many NGOs for assistance but had received no help. “I swallowed my pride and came here to ask you for help today,” she said to Chen. “I never imagined that you people would be so kind and sincere. Thank you.”

The volunteers returned next month to Ramtha, but they did not see Fathea. Chen asked the staff from a refugee referral center why Fathea was nowhere to be seen. They informed Chen that Fathea had been sponsored by another charitable organization, so she no longer needed Tzu Chi’s help. That information, however, was not accurate.

After Fathea had received her first monthly assistance from Tzu Chi, the referral center informed her, wrongly, that Tzu Chi would not help cancer patients any more. She was very disappointed by the notice, and she couldn’t understand why the foundation had deserted her.


Mohammed Targ Dahdal tells visiting Tzu Chi volunteers that, despite 32 operations in four years, the doctors still recommended that his right leg be amputated—medical advice that he refused to follow. Chen Chiou Hwa

Another try

In spite of her disappointment with Tzu Chi, for the sake of her son Fathea eventually made a phone call to Tzu Chi volunteer Abeer Aglan M. Madanat on September 5, 2017. Mustering all her courage, Fathea said, “Can you help my son to get an operation? Just tell me yes or no.” Abeer did not respond directly to her question, so she hung up, disappointed again.

After Fathea abruptly hung up the phone, Abeer told Chen Chiou Hwa about her phone call. Chen without any hesitation decided to visit Fathea.

Chen did not waste any time. On September 8, just three days after her call for help, Chen and other volunteers drove a hundred kilometers (60 miles) from Amman to Ramtha to visit Fathea. She was astounded and touched beyond description when she saw Chen again.

She told the visitors that she had tried all along to make a living on her own so as to break out from the quandary in which her family was mired. She had made hand-made soaps and tried to sell them in traditional markets in Ramtha. She had also tried to sell them to supermarkets and hotels, but she did not make much headway. Natural soap was just too pricy for the people in Ramtha. The fact that Syrians were prohibited from producing and selling goods in Jordan didn’t help either.

Some charitable organizations offered to pay for the materials for her to make the soap and to purchase the soap from her, but they offered prices so low that she felt they were out to exploit her.

She told Chen and the other volunteers that, in the remaining days of her life, she wanted just one thing: that her son Mohammed could walk again so he could take care of his kid sister, who had arrived in Jordan from Syria to reunite with the family.

After the visit, Tzu Chi volunteers immediately contacted Dr. Munther Khatib, a Syrian physician they had long worked with, to evaluate Mohammed’s situation. The doctor determined that Mohammed would need three more operations. When he called Fathea to bring Mohammed in for surgery on September 12, merely four days after Chen’s visit to her home, Fathea was ecstatic. “Tzu Chi moves very fast,” she said. “Now I know that they have always wanted to help me. I misunderstood them all these months because of miscommunications.”

Chen said, “We feel bad about not having been able to help Fathea for two years. We have learned our lesson. In the future, we must meet needy families face to face so we can eliminate the possibility of misunderstandings arising from the actions of third parties.”

 A scene at the Azraq refugee camp, home to over 50,000 people. After arriving in Jordan, Hiba Targ Dahdal stayed here briefly before being released to her mother. About 650,000 Syrians have registered as refugees in Jordan, though the actual number is much higher. Huang Xiao-zhe

The operation

Before this upcoming surgery, Mohammed had undergone 32 operations in four years, 14 of which were major surgeries, but these efforts had not restored the function of his right leg. He was still unable to walk.

Dr. Khatib invited Dr. Faten Qahaush, a Jordanian endoscopy specialist, to operate on Mohammed. On the big day, volunteers waited with Fathea outside the operating room. The surgery went very well. Dr. Khatib announced afterwards that Mohammed would not need a second surgery, much less a third, as he had originally thought.

Mohammed was overjoyed to finally have his leg back. He felt like a new person. His steps were still wobbly, but he worked hard in rehab. “My brain was injured too, and I sometimes feel shocks as if I have touched a live electric wire. My muscles have withered from disuse, and they hurt when I do physical therapy. But still I persist and force myself to do more [in rehab].”

With his ability to walk restored, Mohammed’s confidence was back. He learned the art of soap making from his mother, and he planned to finish school. “I’ll make up all the lessons that I missed, and I’ll enrich myself with as much knowledge as I can,” he said. “Many children in my country don’t have the luxury of an education, so I hope that I can go back one day to teach them.”

A long flight to safety

Fathea has three children—Mohammed is the eldest, followed by daughter Hiba and a younger son. The latter two remained in Syria when Fathea and Mohammed left their home for Jordan to seek treatment in 2013. After that, Hiba took care of her little brother like a mother. “I decided to come to Jordan only after my kid brother was killed in 2015.” She burst into tears and was unable to speak any more.

That year, government and opposition forces executed 48 males in Hiba’s hometown, including her kid brother, then 11 years old. The boy begged his father at the scene to save him, but his father was unable to stop the execution. The sight of his young son’s murder shook the father so badly that it drove him insane.

“The mention of Syria hurts me badly,” Fathea said. “I don’t care about my house, my land, or anything else, but I care about my children. I’ve lost a child, and I’ve lost relatives and friends. My heart is broken.”

The news of her son’s death came at a time when Fathea was physically the feeblest and mentally the most helpless and vulnerable, but she still did what she could to help get her daughter into Jordan. After paying a great deal of money for an entry permit application for Hiba, she got the permit.

At that time, she and her daughter were geographically very close. Ramtha and Daraa are a mere 30-minute car ride apart, but that direct path was no longer accessible to Syrians fleeing their country. Hiba decided to take a convoluted route. It was a very long journey, 980 kilometers (610 miles), that would take her eastward toward the border of Syria, Iraq, and Jordan, where she hoped to enter Jordan.

She somehow managed to get the money needed for the trip. She purchased the services of a human smuggling group, and on October 23, 2015, at 15 years of age, she set out on her journey with more than a thousand other people. It would become an 18-day trek through the desert for her.

They rode in trucks that were almost totally enclosed. The fares were 300 dinar (US$423) per head. Her fellow passengers included Yemenis, Iraqis, but mostly Syrians. The size of the caravan increased as more people joined in along the way.

Each time they reached a stop, the smuggling group charged the refugees again. More than 90 percent of the people could not afford it, so they would just be kicked off the trucks. Once deserted by the caravan, those people might be taken to join the opposition forces if they were young men, married off to local men if they were young women, or left to their own devices if they were infirm, physically disabled, or without other resources. Some people got off along the way to continue their journeys to destinations like Iraq, Turkey, or Europe. Hiba was on the truck for more than 18 hours a day. Unable to tell day from night, she was somewhat disoriented and always extremely scared.

Sometimes they stopped at the campgrounds of nomads to eat or sleep—but only after they had paid. Hiba had to stay alert, even during sleep, keeping an eye out for the caravan for fear of being left behind.

Eighteen days later—which, Hiba said, seemed like 20 years to her—they finally arrived at the three-nation border. Hiba and five others got off and stayed a day at the border before being sent to the Azraq refugee camp.

Fathea had lost contact with Hiba during her second day of the flight. The mother was worried sick. She fasted day and night, only drinking water—all she could do was pray for the safety of her daughter. When she finally heard that Hiba had reached the refugee camp, she was on cloud nine and went out to shout in great elation on the street.

She rushed from Ramtha to Azraq to meet her daughter, but she could hardly recognize her. The girl she saw was filthy, disheveled, and much taller than she had remembered. They embraced and cried, all too happy and excited to see each other again.


Fathea Hseen al-Ibcahen (left) poses for a photo, along with her children Hiba (second from left) and Mohammed Targ Dahdal (right). A visiting Tzu Chi volunteer rounds out the group. Gao Yao-guang

Hanging on to hope

Chen Chiou Hwa said that the Jordanian government had once operated eight entry points on its border with Syria, but, to better manage the influx of refugees, it had closed seven of them, leaving the three-nation border the sole point of entry to Jordan from Syria. That’s why Hiba had no choice but to travel 980 kilometers to enter Jordan—the distance was almost from one end of Jordan to the other.

Chen and his fellow volunteers had distributed aid to refugees at the Azraq camp, where Hiba stayed briefly. “The children we saw there must not have bathed for who knows how long,” Chen said. “Their hair was badly knotted. Life must have been hard.” Chen asked some refugees there whether they could have returned to Syria if they had not been able to gain entry into Jordan. They said that they would have had to pay at check points, either to the government or to the opposition, for passage. Failing that, they would have been shot to death. They were caught between a rock and a hard place.

“After her brother was killed,” Chen continued, “Hiba, just 15 years old, crossed the vast desert to be reunited with her mother. I just can’t bear to imagine all the hardships that she must have endured.”

Happily, these nightmares are behind Hiba now. She has finished high school in Jordan and is preparing to go to college. Her dream is to become a physician so she can help people.

While finally living together has brought great happiness to the three of them, the challenges facing Fathea have not diminished, not even for one day. She still has to support her family, so she continues to work hard.

In Syria in the old days, whenever she was in need of raw materials to make soap, she would just pick up the phone and people would willingly loan them to her. But not in Jordan. She has experienced such tremendous pressure to sustain the family that she contemplated suicide, not once but twice. Tzu Chi volunteers often purchased soap from her in the hope that that would help her and her children emerge from their conundrum. That helped her regain some confidence, but she knew at the same time that she could not depend on others forever. That’s why she continued to look for work to make more money beyond making soap to sell.

Gradually, she began doing better. Once the family’s finances improved, she asked Tzu Chi to stop giving her money each month for medical treatment. She even began making regular donations to help others, and she donated a thousand bars of soap to residents at the Zaatari refugee camp.

In the meantime, she has continued to receive treatment for her bone cancer. Her doctor says she is looking better. Life is looking up for her.

Still, the war has traumatized her. “It’s a feeling that is beyond description,” Fathea said. “A sort of fear haunts me even in my dreams.” She wasn’t worried for herself, she said, but for every person in her family, including those who remain in Syria.

She is grateful to everyone who has helped her. They have helped her see hope. She hopes she can one day return to her beloved Syria, her home. 

May 2018