Volunteers seek to empower disabled ‘who only have Allah’

Syrian refugees seek to change regressive attitudes among war-zone communities

Volunteer Syrian refugees discuss their work with the disabled in Dumiz 1 camp. Photograph: Ruaidhrí Giblin

Volunteer Syrian refugees discuss their work with the disabled in Dumiz 1 camp. Photograph: Ruaidhrí Giblin

 

In the Middle East, the phrase “inshallah” or “God willing’” is used to bookend many hopes and ambitions such as the making of a journey, better fortune or an end to war.

But some don’t like to wait for God alone, as the phrase can imply. Among them is an Iraqi NGO, based in the country’s Kurdistan region, which is empowering Syrian refugees to help their own.

The ambition of Nujeen, which was set up after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003, is to build a civil society by “democratising the family”, but the Kurdistan region has absorbed more than two million refugees from wars in Iraq and Syria in recent years and the demands on local NGOs have significantly grown.

There are 100,000 registered refugees living in camps outside the Kurdish city of Dohuk, northern Iraq. Here, Nujeen has been Handicap International’s local partner on a three-year project entitled “Empowering People with Disabilities and Injuries Within the Syrian Population”.

Rasha Wahab, project co-ordinator with Nujeen, said that the project had empowered Syrian refugees to help about 1,350 of their fellow refugees with disabilities in five camps.

Groups of volunteers drawn from the camps have helped the disabled with basic needs such as medicine, information, advocacy and communication with other NGOs.

In Dumiz 1 refugee camp, outside Dohuk, a quadriplegic boy with cerebral palsy, a boy described as “alone inside” in reference to autism, as well as the blind, the deaf and the physically disabled, have all benefited from the volunteers’ work.

Volunteer leader Younis Rammo, who fled from Hasakah, Syria, in 2013, has come to Nujeen’s room in a prefab building at the front of the camp almost every day. Without the volunteer programme, people with disabilities in Dumiz 1 camp would “only have Allah”, Younis said.

Also volunteering in the camp that day were two Syrian women in their 20s along with a third woman in her 30s. It gave them pride to do what they do, they said through an interpreter.

The biggest problem the disabled faced was society’s attitude, Rasha said, as well as official care workers who often did not know how to care for them. “They basically think people with disabilities have to just stay at home, don’t do anything. They think they are not human . . . not normal person . . . they lock the people inside.”

Nujeen’s goal in the project was to help communities “change their attitude” towards people with disabilities. It is hoped that at the end of the Syrian war, which is now in its sixth year, the volunteers will return to their homes and establish their own organisations.

Rasha said Duhok is expected to receive hundreds of thousands of refugees during the upcoming military offensive to push Islamic State, also known as Isis, out of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city.

Many of the one-million plus refugees expected to flee the city will have disabilities, she said, but there could be many more than expected because Isis “cut the hands of people”, said Rasha, according to their interpretation of religion.

Handicap International has been running the project in partnership with local NGOs in Jordan, Lebanon and Iraq – where Nujeen is based. The project, which had been funded by the EU, is due to come to the end of its three-year cycle in September.

Thomas Hugonnier, desk manager for Iraq at Handicap International, said a new project was being discussed with the EU but all efforts right now were “focused on the humanitarian response to the Mosul attack which will go through direct assistance. For the moment this is our main focus.”

Hugonnier said the volunteers who continue their work after the project completes its cycle will be the ones “we need to rely on”.

Nujeen’s general director, Abdal Nuri Abdal, a lawywer and former journalist, described Nujeen’s other projects such as empowerment of women, life-skills training, psychological support and campaigns on violence against women.

He believes that the Middle East’s problems will get worse before they can get better, and that the eventual defeat of Islamic State may open up new avenues of hate between ethnic groups in the region.

“We need peace building and social cohesion. And cultural tolerance – we really need this badly.”

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