However, as refugees, many lose that support network and without guidance do not know how to properly breastfeed their children — bringing a risk of malnutrition. As refugees run out of money and struggle to find work, many mothers do not have enough to buy supplementary food.
The poverty and poor hygienic living conditions at the root of the problem are likely only to worsen as Syria’s war drags on.
“Malnutrition is not an issue related to food. It’s a health issue,” Zeroual Azzeddine of UNICEF said.
In Lebanon, nearly 1 million Syrians are registered as refugees by the UN refugee agency. The poorest 140,000 live in 460 informal camps, where they live in poorly insulated tents with no clean running water and with sewage running down ditches between tents.
Aid workers are trying to track down the thousands of malnourished children they believe are in Lebanon.
“We need to find these children,” said Ousta, whose organization treated 170 cases since August last year.
UNICEF is training doctors to identify malnutrition among Syrian children undergoing immunizations and other medical checks.
The doctors weigh children, measure their upper-arm circumference and check their feet for water retention that can be a sign of acute malnutrition.
They are on alert for mothers who say their babies are always tired, another signal.
Mervat, who lived with her family in the northern Syrian village of Tel al-Daman, was too poor to buy food for her daughter, who kept vomiting the breast milk she gave her.
She watched Shurouk shrink and her stomach bloat, but the fear of clashes between rebels and government troops kept her from reaching a doctor in the nearby city of Aleppo.
Fearing her daughter would die, she fled to Lebanon four months ago.
Now she and her husband and eight children sleep in a tiny shack of wood, cardboard and plastic, with a small heater and thin mats. Her husband, a laborer, hurt his foot and cannot work.
Her older daughters decorated the tent with an old lace curtain, faded plastic flowers and a green-and-white teddy bear.
However, it does not protect them from the icy, wet cold, and Shurouk keeps falling ill.
When doctors first saw her in Lebanon, she weighed 3kg, climbed up to 4kg and then lost weight in a flu bout, said Maha Shoker, an aid worker monitoring her case.
Shurouk remains acutely malnourished and, making her situation more precarious, she also has gall bladder stones.
Refugees must grapple with another problem. The UN and partner organizations only cover basic care because there is not enough money. Syrian children with illnesses sometimes fall through the gaps — and because they are sick, they do not eat, and malnutrition becomes a side-effect.
Near Mervat’s tent, 15-month-old baby Juma Kheir’s dirt-streaked face contorted in pain from a hernia that has caused his testicles to swell.
His father, Mohammed, said doctors told him the hernia was not an urgent medical case, and so aid agencies could not cover the cost of treating it.
Meanwhile, Juma cannot eat and his mother feared he was wasting away. His twin was noticeably chubbier and heavier.
Mervat said her other children were often hungry because they had no money to buy food and relied on UN donations.
“I’m worried about them, I’m afraid of the future,” Mervat said.