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Syria's Children

Dr. Nancy Snyderman: Smiles Amid Tragedy in Refugee Camp

Dr. Nancy Snyderman with a child in a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Hayley Goldbach / NBC News

This week, NBC News will launch a special series "Forgotten? Syria's Children of War." The live documentary will unfold on Tuesday and Wednesday, following the lives of Syrian children over 48 hours on NBCNews.com, TODAY, and Nightly News.

Chief Medical Editor Dr. Nancy Snyderman is filing a daily report from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, sharing the stories of the innocent casualties of Syria's civil war:

We woke early on our first day in Lebanon, driving east from Beirut into the Bekaa Valley to the refugee camp where we would meet the children of Syria. The small city of tents is made of plastic and concrete and kept as neat as possible, but on a rainy day like today, nothing can stop the mud from coursing through the concrete channels of the camp and sticking to every shoe and pant leg.

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Mud isn't the worst of it. Another huge problem is waste disposal. Without a formal way to deal with trash, it ends up thrown into pits — potentially attracting flies or other vermin.

This is a way of life for these Syrian refugees and their children. There are over 5 million Syrian children affected by the conflict in their home country and nearly 500,000 of those children now live as refugees in Lebanon. This particular camp, Fadya 1, houses 550 people in 80 tents.

When we arrived, we were shown around the camp by workers who staff the clinic and help manage the camp. As soon as we stepped into the medical clinic, Khadija, a 10-year-old girl with streaks of blond in her braid, was led into clinic. Her problem? Her blood sugar was reportedly off the charts at 400. [A normal blood sugar reading two hours after eating is less than 140 mg/dl.]

Dr. Nancy Snyderman assists another doctor in checking on Yusef at a Syrian refugee camp in Lebanon. Hayley Goldbach / NBC News

Once the medical staff addressed her problem, she shyly confided that she knew what she wanted to be when she grew up: a doctor. Beyond dealing with medical complaints like this one, the medical clinic is also responsible for providing care to pregnant women and distributing vaccines.

We were able to see this program in action as several children were given their third dose of polio vaccine. The vaccine is given as drops and fed right into the child's mouth. To keep track of these doses, the children's thumbs are smeared with black ink after they get their vaccines as a way to mark who has already received the latest dose.

And so far, the program appears to be working. According to Tarek, the worker from UNICEF who dispensed the vaccines, there have been no cases of polio so far in the camp. Why is there such concern? Polio, a disease that has been mostly eradicated in most of the world, returned in Syria in October of 2013. Overall, vaccination coverage rates across Syria have fallen from 91 percent in 2010 to just 68 percent in 2012 — and the number today is likely to be even lower.

Four-year-old Yusef's arm was burned in a cooking accident in Syria.
Four-year-old Yusef's arm was burned in a cooking accident in Syria. Hayley Goldbach / NBC News

First in line for his dose of polio vaccine was 4-year-old Yusef. Small for his age but with a quick smile, Yusef pulled up his sleeve to reveal horrific burn scars.

Leaving the camp, we were flanked with children young and old eager for a chance to show off their English phrases. "Good afterNOON" they chorused again and again, pushing a shoving each other good-naturedly.

But despite their smiles, many of these children had chilling stories to tell. Of family members killed in the conflict, of being pulled out of school, of leaving the only home they have ever known to live in a city of tents. The conflict has had devastating consequences for the health and well being of Syria's children both at home and those forced to live as refugees.

We will chronicle these remarkable children and bring you their stories for the next three days.

Stanford/NBC News Global Health Media Fellow Hayley Goldbach contributed to this dispatch. Follow the "Forgotten? Syria's Children of War" series with the hashtag #SyriasChildren.