Gaza's IVF Embryos Destroyed by Israeli Strike

Palestinian woman Seba Jaafarawi, whose IVF embryos were stored at Al Basma IVF Center, gestures during an interview with Reuters via Zoom, in Cairo, Egypt, March 28, 2024, in this still image taken from a video. REUTERS/Reuters TV
Palestinian woman Seba Jaafarawi, whose IVF embryos were stored at Al Basma IVF Center, gestures during an interview with Reuters via Zoom, in Cairo, Egypt, March 28, 2024, in this still image taken from a video. REUTERS/Reuters TV
TT

Gaza's IVF Embryos Destroyed by Israeli Strike

Palestinian woman Seba Jaafarawi, whose IVF embryos were stored at Al Basma IVF Center, gestures during an interview with Reuters via Zoom, in Cairo, Egypt, March 28, 2024, in this still image taken from a video. REUTERS/Reuters TV
Palestinian woman Seba Jaafarawi, whose IVF embryos were stored at Al Basma IVF Center, gestures during an interview with Reuters via Zoom, in Cairo, Egypt, March 28, 2024, in this still image taken from a video. REUTERS/Reuters TV

When an Israeli shell struck Gaza's largest fertility clinic in December, the explosion blasted the lids off five liquid nitrogen tanks stored in a corner of the embryology unit.
As the ultra-cold liquid evaporated, the temperature inside the tanks rose, destroying more than 4,000 embryos plus 1,000 more specimens of sperm and unfertilized eggs stored at Gaza City's Al Basma IVF center.
The impact of that single explosion was far-reaching -- an example of the unseen toll Israel's six-and-a-half-month-old assault has had on the 2.3 million people of Gaza, Reuters reported.
The embryos in those tanks were the last hope for hundreds of Palestinian couples facing infertility.
"We know deeply what these 5,000 lives, or potential lives, meant for the parents, either for the future or for the past," said Bahaeldeen Ghalayini, 73, the Cambridge-trained obstetrician and gynecologist who established the clinic in 1997.
At least half of the couples — those who can no longer produce sperm or eggs to make viable embryos — will not have another chance to get pregnant, he said.
"My heart is divided into a million pieces," he said.
Three years of fertility treatment was a psychological roller coaster for Seba Jaafarawi. The retrieval of eggs from her ovaries was painful, the hormone injections had strong side-effects and the sadness when two attempted pregnancies failed seemed unbearable.
Jaafarawi, 32, and her husband could not get pregnant naturally and turned to in vitro fertilization (IVF), which is widely available in Gaza.
Large families are common in the enclave, where nearly half the population is under 18 and the fertility rate is high at 3.38 births per woman, according to the Palestinian Bureau of Statistics. Britain's fertility rate is 1.63 births per woman.
Despite Gaza's poverty, couples facing infertility pursue IVF, some selling TVs and jewelry to pay the fees, Al Ghalayini said.

At least nine clinics in Gaza performed IVF, where eggs are collected from a woman's ovaries and fertilized by sperm in a lab. The fertilized eggs, called embryos, are often frozen until the optimal time for transfer to a woman's uterus. Most frozen embryos in Gaza were stored at the Al Basma center.
In September, Jaafarawi became pregnant, her first successful IVF attempt.
"I did not even have time to celebrate the news," she said.
Two days before her first scheduled ultrasound scan, Hamas launched the Oct. 7 attack on Israel, killing 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages, according to Israeli tallies.
Israel vowed to destroy Hamas and launched an all-out assault that has since killed more than 33,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities.
Jaafarawi worried: "How would I complete my pregnancy? What would happen to me and what would happen to the ones inside my womb?"
Her ultrasound never happened and Ghalayini closed his clinic, where an additional five of Jaafarawi's embryos were stored.
As the Israeli attacks intensified, Mohammed Ajjour, Al Basma's chief embryologist, started to worry about liquid nitrogen levels in the five specimen tanks. Top ups were needed every month or so to keep the temperature below -180C in each tank, which operate independent of electricity.
After the war began, Ajjour managed to procure one delivery of liquid nitrogen, but Israel cut electricity and fuel to Gaza, and most suppliers closed.
At the end of October, Israeli tanks rolled into Gaza and soldiers closed in on the streets around the IVF center. It became too dangerous for Ajjour to check the tanks.
Jaafarawi knew she should rest to keep her fragile pregnancy safe, but hazards were everywhere: she climbed six flights of stairs to her apartment because the elevator stopped working; a bomb leveled the building next door and blasted out windows in her flat; food and water became scarce.
Instead of resting, she worried.
"I got very scared and there were signs that I would lose (the pregnancy)," she said.
Jaafarawi bled a little bit after she and her husband left home and moved south to Khan Younis. The bleeding subsided, but her fear did not.

They crossed into Egypt on Nov. 12 and in Cairo, her first ultrasound showed she was pregnant with twins and they were alive.
But after a few days, she experienced painful cramps, bleeding and a sudden shift in her belly. She made it to hospital, but the miscarriage had already begun.
"The sounds of me screaming and crying at the hospital are still (echoing) in my ears," she said.
The pain of loss has not stopped.
"Whatever you imagine or I tell you about how hard the IVF journey is, only those who have gone through it know what it's really like," she said.
Jaafarawi wanted to return to the war zone, retrieve her frozen embryos and attempt IVF again.
But it was soon too late.
Ghalayini said a single Israeli shell struck the corner of the center, blowing up the ground floor embryology lab. He does not know if the attack specifically targeted the lab or not.
"All these lives were killed or taken away: 5,000 lives in one shell," he said.
In April, the embryology lab was still strewn with broken masonry, blown-up lab supplies and, amid the rubble, the liquid nitrogen tanks, according to a Reuters-commissioned journalist who visited the site.
The lids were open and, still visible at the bottom of one of the tanks, a basket was filled with tiny color-coded straws containing the ruined microscopic embryos.



Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
TT

Syrians in Lebanon Fear Unprecedented Restrictions, Deportations 

A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)
A Syrian refugee boy runs at an informal tented settlement in the Bekaa valley, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

The soldiers came before daybreak, singling out the Syrian men without residence permits from the tattered camp in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. As toddlers wailed around them, Mona, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon for a decade, watched Lebanese troops shuffle her brother onto a truck headed for the Syrian border.

Thirteen years since Syria's conflict broke out, Lebanon remains home to the largest refugee population per capita in the world: roughly 1.5 million Syrians - half of whom are refugees formally registered with the United Nations refugee agency UNHCR - in a country of approximately 4 million Lebanese.

They are among some five million Syrian refugees who spilled out of Syria into neighboring countries, while millions more are displaced within Syria. Donor countries in Brussels this week pledged fewer funds in Syria aid than last year.

With Lebanon struggling to cope with an economic meltdown that has crushed livelihoods and most public services, its chronically underfunded security forces and typically divided politicians now agree on one thing: Syrians must be sent home.

Employers have been urged to stop hiring Syrians for menial jobs. Municipalities have issued new curfews and have even evicted Syrian tenants, two humanitarian sources told Reuters. At least one township in northern Lebanon has shuttered an informal camp, sending Syrians scattering, the sources said.

Lebanese security forces issued a new directive this month shrinking the number of categories through which Syrians can apply for residency - frightening many who would no longer qualify for legal status and now face possible deportation.

Lebanon has organized voluntary returns for Syrians, through which 300 travelled home in May. But more than 400 have also been summarily deported by the Lebanese army, two humanitarian sources told Reuters, caught in camp raids or at checkpoints set up to identify Syrians without legal residency.

They are automatically driven across the border, refugees and humanitarian workers say, fueling concerns about rights violations, forced military conscription or arbitrary detention.

Mona, who asked to change her name in fear of Lebanese authorities, said her brother was told to register with Syria's army reserves upon his entry. Fearing a similar fate, the rest of the camp's men no longer venture out.

"None of the men can pick up their kids from school, or go to the market to get things for the house. They can't go to any government institutions, or hospital, or court," Mona said.

She must now care for her brother's children, who were not deported, through an informal job she has at a nearby factory. She works at night to evade checkpoints along her commute.

A sign that reads "The return of the displaced is a right and a duty", is placed along a highway in Jounieh, Lebanon May 23, 2024. (Reuters)

'WRONG & NOT SUSTAINABLE'

Lebanon has deported refugees in the past, and political parties have long insisted parts of Syria are safe enough for large-scale refugee returns.

But in April, the killing of a local Lebanese party official blamed on Syrians touched off a concentrated campaign of anti-refugee sentiment.

Hate speech flourished online, with more than 50% of the online conversation about refugees in Lebanon focused on deporting them and another 20% referring to Syrians as an "existential threat," said Lebanese research firm InflueAnswers.

The tensions have extended to international institutions. Lebanon's foreign minister has pressured UNHCR's representative to rescind a request to halt the new restrictions and lawmakers slammed a one billion euro aid package from the European Union as a "bribe" to keep hosting refugees.

"This money that the EU is sending to the Syrians, let them send it to Syria," said Roy Hadchiti, a media representative for the Free Patriotic Movement, speaking at an anti-refugee rally organized by the conservative Christian party.

He, like a growing number of Lebanese, complained that Syrian refugees received more aid than desperate Lebanese. "Go see them in the camps - they have solar panels, while Lebanese can't even afford a private generator subscription," he said.

The UN still considers Syria unsafe for large-scale returns and said rising anti-refugee rhetoric is alarming.

"I am very concerned because it can result in... forced returns, which are both wrong and not sustainable," UNHCR head Filippo Grandi told Reuters.

"I understand the frustrations in host countries - but please don't fuel it further."

Zeina, a Syrian refugee who also asked her name be changed, said her husband's deportation last month left her with no work or legal status in an increasingly hostile Lebanese town.

Returning has its own dangers: her children were born in Lebanon and do not have Syrian ID cards, and her home in Homs province remains in ruins since a 2012 government strike that forced her to flee.

"Even now, when I think of those days, and I think of my parents or anyone else going back, they can't. The house is flattened. What kind of return is that?" she said.