A 14-YEAR old schoolboy shocked by the scenes of starvation affecting Syrian refugees has gone on hunger strike in a bid to draw attention to their plight.
Hussein Almasharqah, from Livingston, has now entered the sixth day of his self-imposed food ban allowing only water, fruit juice and milk to pass his lips.
The Linlithgow Academy pupil launched his dangerous diet – which has appalled health experts and dieticians – after witnessing distressing scenes suffered by those in the Syrian Yarmouk refugee camp on the television news last Friday.
He decided there and then that he would not eat another morsel until the UK and Scottish governments take action on the crisis.
His father, Riyad, a plastic surgeon at St John’s Hospital in Livingston, and anxious mother Tahrir, have been forced to watch as their “headstrong but sensitive” son has been transformed from an active Manchester United fan into a listless loafer, sapped of energy and suffering from crippling headaches.
Since beginning his hunger strike he has been drained of strength, prone to worrying dizzy spells and left dreaming of his mother’s spiced chicken and rice.
However, despite health experts saying he could do irreparable harm to his still growing body if he continues, he remains undaunted.
Hussein said: “When I saw the shocking pictures of children dead of starvation I couldn’t take it. I am asking for those in government to realise what’s happening and start doing something.
“I decided to go on a hunger strike in solidarity with the children and the people dying in that camp so at least I can feel for them and share their hunger.
“If no-one does anything a lot of people are going to die – at least 50 people have already died from starvation, and I really hope that the British government does something about it and help them before it’s too late.”
Asked how long he intends to carry out his protest, he added: “Until the government takes notice of what is going on and do something about it. There are children dying out there.”
S3 pupil Hussein, who hopes to one day become an ophthalmic surgeon, has attempted to carry on with his life as much as possible – even sitting a chemistry test on Monday.
He said: “It was harder than usual to concentrate but I think I did OK.”
The school is also monitoring his condition, along with health professionals.
The Almasharqah family moved to the UK from Jordan in 2007 and settled in Livingston three years ago, after Riyad landed a permanent consultant role at the nearby hospital.
He has told of his shock at his son’s decision considering he is “not at all political” or into world affairs.
The only precursor to his son’s starvation protest was a charity collection for the aid body Syria Relief at school last year – raising £60 in the process.
Riyad, a father-of-five, said: “We knew that this particular issue troubled him but not to this extent. I am only too aware of the dangers and damage that he can do to his body by going without food but he feels very passionate about this subject. I’m not going to force feed him.
“We have ensured that he takes plenty of drinks like water, juice and milk on board.
“The first I knew of it was when Tahrir rang me in work on Saturday morning and told me he had refused his breakfast. I spoke to him that night when I returned from work and he was adamant that this is what he wanted to do.
“Hopefully now that he has raised this issue he will see that there is no sense in joining the refugees in starving himself. We are all worried about him, he is a very sensitive boy but also very determined. It is our hope that his message will reach as many people as possible.”
Mother Tahrir, who is extremely wary of the length of time her son’s protest has now gone on, has been equally supportive of her son’s actions.
“It was his own idea to start this,” she said. “I thought he was joking. His father and myself tried our best to convince him to stop with no response.”
Food experts have warned that any long-term hunger strike by Hussein could result in “irreparable damage” to his body.
At present he drinks pints of water, juice and milk giving him a daily calorie intake of just 255 – the recommended amount for a boy of 14 is 1800.
Chris Mantle, food and health development worker at Edinburgh Community Food, said: “The problem is at 14, you’re into puberty and starting to put on a lot of weight, and muscle tissue in particular. It’s such an important period of growth.
“There are a lot of other important things made out of proteins, hormones, enzymes and signalling chemicals for example.
“Brain function will go down, he’ll have much more difficulty making simple decision. And there will be a knock-on effect for his immune system, that will come in for a kicking. Lethargy will set in and mood will decline.
“In the short term, his body will be able to bounce back quite quickly, but in the long term, there could be more severe repercussions.
“If it’s a long-term starvation diet, one of the worst-case scenarios is stunted growth. The brain is still developing, and in boys it doesn’t stop until their 20s. If could have an affect on university and job prospects. The shorter this goes on the better, for obvious reasons.”
Hussein, who lists his hobbies as playing football, basketball and his PlayStation 3, has told how his friends have reacted in horror to his food ban. He said: “They can’t understand it really. They have said they could not go three hours without food so do not understand how I can go days.
“I’ve been dreaming of my mother’s spiced chicken and rice dish so that will be the first meal I’ll have when I finish.”
Zareen Islam, chair of the Muslim Women’s Association of Edinburgh said: “We feel humbled and inspired by the action of this schoolboy’s commitment to go on hunger strike in solidarity with the refugees of Syria.”
Lothians Green MSP Alison Johnstone also said: “Hussein clearly feels very strongly about the plight of Syrian refugees who have been forced to live in desperate conditions.”
A West Lothian Council spokesman said: “We are aware of this situation and are in regular contact with the parents.”
Action is not falling on deaf ears
Hussein’s campaign to raise the plight of Syrian refugees within the corridors of power has reached the ears of various politicians.
Livingston MP Graeme Morrice, right, said: “I share Hussein’s anger and frustration at the appalling suffering that the Syrian people are experiencing. Responsibility for this lies squarely with President Assad and his brutal regime.
“The UK is at the heart of the international humanitarian response and I welcome the recent announcement of an additional £100 million to the UN relief effort in Syria, taking our overall contribution to £500m.
“UK aid already provides food for almost 300,000 people a month in Syria. While humanitarian support, of course, is urgently required, what is also needed to alleviate the long-term suffering of the Syrian people is a negotiated, diplomatic settlement that ends the violence.”
Meanwhile, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The situation in Syria is of great humanitarian concern and we share the intensity of feelings of people throughout Scotland and the world – that the suffering of ordinary Syrians needs resolved as soon as possible.
“The Scottish Government has so far donated £200,000 to the Disasters Emergency Committee. We continue to engage with the Syrian diaspora in Scotland and to monitor the situation closely in hope of a peaceful resolution.”
Camp is ‘hell on earth’
THE refugee camp that led Hussein to take his drastic course of action has been described as “hell on earth”.
Forty-six people, many of them children, have died since October of starvation, illnesses exacerbated by hunger or because they couldn’t obtain medical aid.
The UN has warned of a disastrous humanitarian situation in the camp, which is home to Palestinian refugees and Syrians.
It has been reported that women die during labour due to malnutrition and residents have been eating animal feed.
Syria’s refugee crisis has grown steadily since the beginning of 2012 and accelerated quickly last year. The UN says around 6.5 million people are now displaced inside Syria, with more than 2.3 million registered refugees living across the region in countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, Jordan and Iraq.
About 20 per cent of these refugees live in camps – the rest have found shelter in other communities.
Dan McNorton, of the UN refugee agency UNHCR, said: “While countries neighbouring the conflict are being asked to keep their borders open, it is disconcerting how many Syrians struggle to find protection in Europe, with reports of people being pushed back from borders.”
Survival possible for lenghty periods
THE human body can survive without food for lengthy periods, but only a few days without water.
There are examples of hunger strikers dying after 52 to 74 days of strike. In the first three days without food , the body is still using energy from glucose After that, the liver starts processing body fat in a process called ketosis.
After three weeks the body enters a “starvation mode”.
Since the body will combat malnutrition by breaking down its own fat and eventually its own tissue, a whole host of symptoms can appear. The body’s structure, as well as its functions, are affected. Starved adults may lose as much as 50 per cent of their normal body weight.
Death occurs if fasting is pursued to the point of complete starvation.
Hunger striking as a form of civil disobedience and passive-aggressive protest has a long history, two of the most notable cases involving Mahatma Gandhi and Irish nationalist Bobby Sands who died after 66 days on hunger strike in 1981 after losing 60lbs in the Maze prison near Belfast.