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Syria refugee's desperate act: 'They burned my heart before they burned my body'

By Arwa Damon and Raja Razek, CNN
April 3, 2014 -- Updated 1227 GMT (2027 HKT)
  • Mariam Khaowleh, her husband and their family fled to Lebanon from their home in Homs, Syria
  • Three of their four children have a blood disease that makes it difficult to digest certain foods
  • After they were excluded from targeted food aid Mariam says it was hard to feed her family
  • She says she appealed for but was denied re-inclusion and finally set herself alight

(CNN) -- Mariam Khaowleh moans softly as the nurse gently removes the straw from her raw lips.

Her entire body is covered in bandages. Mariam, a Syrian refugee, in her 40s, a mother of four, her wounds not a product of the violence raging in her homeland, but self-inflicted.

Mariam's husband, Ahmad al-Daher, peers into the room from behind the glass, shock and sorrow lining his face as he listens to the woman whose smile he fell in love with 24 years ago.

"I chose death, I chose death rather than seeing my children die a million times in front of me," she says, speaking to us through the intercom.

Only medical staff are allowed inside the room. "It's hard, it's hard for a mother to want to feed her children. They burned my heart, they burned my heart before they burned my body. I was like an insect to them."

Targeted aid

Mariam's story of frustration, humiliation, desperation mirrors that of countless other refugees. But so deep was her agony that something inside this woman -- described as being strong, eloquent -- must have snapped.

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Mariam and her family fled to Lebanon from the Syrian city of Homs nearly two years ago. Life as a refugee was hard, making ends meet always a struggle especially putting the children -- aged 13 to 22 -- into school and university.

Three of Mariam and Ahmad's four children have a blood disease which makes it difficult to digest certain foods and can lead to hemolytic anemia.

The family relied on aid to get by, but about six months ago the UNHCR and World Food Programme conducted a vulnerability assessment and concluded that around 30% of refugees can meet their own needs. That resulted in a targeted aid campaign, and Mariam's family was excluded.

There is a process to appeal the exclusion, which Mariam's family says is why she made repeated visits to a UNHCR registration center in Tripoli.

"I went to them over and over, I said you must have made a mistake." She tells us. "They lied to me, they mocked me, they shouted at me, get out of here."

"I said to them if you don't give me anything where am I going to get it from?" Mariam continues. "I am going to set myself on fire, how am I going to feed my children? Feel my pain, feel what's in my heart, feel that I have four children."

Mariam torched herself.

Eyewitnesses say she arrived outside the registration center, exchanged a few words with someone before dousing herself in gasoline. Within seconds she went up in flames.

"She fell to the ground and just started burning," one of the men who runs a food stall recalls.

U.N. response

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CNN spoke to U.N. personnel at the center and guards outside. They told us Mariam had not been mistreated. Still, the U.N. says it takes these allegations very seriously and is looking into them.

Mariam does have a protection file with UNHCR and in January an assessment was done regarding her children's medical condition, but they have no record of her appeal.

UNHCR says the family was also offered resettlement into communal housing, which they refused, saying they feared for their daughters' safety among strangers.

The U.N. is also following up on the family's eligibility for re-inclusion in the food program and covering all of Mariam's medical costs.

"I am a mother, my children were getting dizzy from the lack of food, one said I can't lift my head, the other said I can't move my legs" Mariam recalls, regret for her actions compounding her already penetrating physical and emotional pain.

"My heart burns for my children. I hope that God forgives me, I want my voice to reach all the mothers, each person who has a conscience," she pleads.

"I want my children to be independent, I worked very hard for their education, I worked a lot in this life for them to be able to reach university."

Ahmad, her husband, wipes his eyes and turns away as she says she doesn't want her children to see her like this. She wants them to remember her the way she was.

Number of Syrian refugees in Lebanon passes 1 million, U.N. says

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