Syrian refugee girl with legs made out of tin cans told she will walk again after surgery for prosthetic limbs

Specialist doctor dismisses offers of donations towards life-changing surgery for child whose plight touched people worldwide

Jane Dalton
Saturday 30 June 2018 16:20 BST
Maya and her father, both born without legs, at the Istanbul clinic where they will be given new limbs
Maya and her father, both born without legs, at the Istanbul clinic where they will be given new limbs (AFP/Getty Images)

An eight-year-old Syrian refugee girl born without legs whose plight touched people around the world has been promised she will be able to walk again after she is given new prosthetic limbs.

Maya Merhi was photographed walking on artificial limbs that her father had made out of plastic tubing and tin cans in images that prompted global outpourings of sympathy.

Now she is to undergo surgery in Turkey by a prosthetics specialist who has dismissed offers of donations and says he will bear the cost himself.

Maya, who was born with no legs because of a congenital condition, had been living with her father – who shares the disability – at a refugee camp in the Idlib region of northern Syria, forced out of their Aleppo home by fighting in the country’s civil war.

She moved around most easily by crawling but recent surgery that further reduced the length of her limbs had impeded this.

"After the operation, she was not able to move around and was sitting the whole time in a tent," said Mr Merhi, who uses a wheelchair.

"In order for her to move out of the tent, I had the idea to fix on her limbs tubing stuffed with a spongy material to reduce the pressure.

"Then I added two empty cans of tuna because the plastic was not strong enough to resist the friction with the ground."

He replaced the plastic tubing once a month and the tins once a week.

With these impromptu prosthetics, Maya was able to walk outside, even going to the camp's school.

“My heart suffers when I see her crawling in front of friends, while they play and run,” said Mr Merhi.

Maya in the refugee camp, walking with legs made of tin cans
Maya in the refugee camp, walking with legs made of tin cans (AFP/Getty Images)

After pictures of her plight were seen around the world, the Turkish Red Crescent intervened, arranging for the Turkish authorities to take Maya and her father to a specialised clinic in Istanbul.

"Maya will walk," said Dr Mehmet Zeki Culcu, the prosthetics specialist treating her. "God willing, in three months’ time."

Syria’s refugee camps house around 3m people but most have no access to humanitarian aid. Many more people have fled to nearby Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon.

Mr Merhi, 34, who has five other children, none of whom suffers from the condition, will also be given prosthetic legs in Turkey.

He said the surgery for his daughter was more important than his own, so that she could be autonomous. “It would be like a new life for us," he said.

"I dream of seeing her walk, going to school and back without suffering."

Dr Culcu said he had been "very touched" by the photographs of Maya walking on her tins and had decided to take on the cost of her prosthetic legs and those of her father.

"We have been contacted by people all over the world who want to make the donation. But this issue is closed and I will take on the cost," he said.

He said the homemade limbs her father had constructed in the Idlib camp were likely to prove of huge benefit because they had got her used to walking.

"We can't really call what she has prosthetics," Dr Culcu said.

"It's a kind of makeshift system for her to walk. With the energy of desperation, without any means, her father turned that suffering into hope."

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