Home Essential support The hidden toll of the Syrian war against children with disabilities

The hidden toll of the Syrian war against children with disabilities

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By Emina Cerimovic
Photographs of Ali Haj Suleiman


The Syrian war, which has been raging since 2011, has claimed countless lives and disrupted the lives of millions. Children with disabilities have faced heightened risks in attacks. The essential services they need – assistive devices, education, health care and psychosocial support – are either unavailable or have been disrupted by the conflict. They have lost years of schooling and face discrimination and stigma in their communities. Bullying is common.

Human Rights Watch interviewed six children with disabilities and 22 parents and family members in Syria between October 2020 and June 2022. Most of the children interviewed were born shortly before or during the conflict. Their lives have been massively shaped by armed conflict and violence, displacement, poverty and the breakdown of essential and other services that characterize them.

In the face of these difficulties, families have taken enormous measures to keep their children safe and to support them. Children and their families are determined to build a future where the rights of persons with disabilities are guaranteed and where they have access to healthcare, assistive devices, inclusive education and psychosocial support. Here are some of their stories.


Ibrahim

In 2018, Ibrahim and his family were forced from their home in Idlib Governorate when he was two years old. “We made the decision to flee and leave our home because we couldn’t take it anymore,” her father said. “[There were] lots of bombs and airstrikes; our lives were in danger.


Ibrahim’s family has been forced to flee the conflict on several occasions. They were living in a tent in a makeshift camp on Syria’s border with Turkey in October 2020 when Human Rights Watch first interviewed Ibrahim’s father. When Human Rights Watch interviewed the father again in June 2022 and met with Ibrahim, they still had not been able to return home. Instead, they lived in a rented house in a town near the Turkish border.


Ibrahim, who is now five years old, suffers from autism and hyperactivity. His father explained that the biggest challenge is the lack of access to education and other services, including programs for parents, which would help him and his wife better support Ibrahim.


Ibrahim is very attached to his father, who worries about the family’s ability to care for and support the boy’s development:

He doesn’t know how to communicate with us, we don’t know how to communicate with him and there is nowhere to look for support. He is still young and there is probably something we can do… I look at my child and I don’t know how to support him. What can I do? Will he grow up without access to education and support?


It is difficult for Ibrahim to interact with other children and he has been bullied because he behaves differently. “When he goes out on the street to play with other children, he doesn’t know how to act, and they harass him a lot and hit him,” his father said.


Despite Ibrahim’s lack of access to education, “he tries to write, and I was so happy that he could,” his father proudly says. Education is very important to the family and Ibrahim’s parents dream that he will have access to quality and inclusive education. Unfortunately, as the conflict drags on, that dream remains elusive. “I am afraid of what will happen if Ibrahim does not have access to quality education and support.”


Shahd

Shahd and his family lived in the village of Al Hawash, in the countryside of Hama city, before the start of the war in 2011. His father, Ahmed (a pseudonym), worked and had enough income to support himself. of the family. Ahmed told us that in 2013, when Shahd was only 2 years old, their neighborhood was attacked with a barrel bomb falling just 30 meters from their home. Shahd was sleeping at the time and a fragment approached his head, causing hearing loss and weakening his auditory nerve, his father told us.

The war meant that Ahmed lost his job and the family lost their home. Since leaving Al Hawash, the family has been displaced several times as they were forced to flee the fighting. Health workers told Shahd’s parents that she needed a cochlear implant to improve her hearing, but the family could not afford it.


Today, Shahd is 12 years old and has a hearing impairment. Ahmed said he and his wife feared for Shahd’s safety as she could not hear the airstrikes. “My wife and I keep an eye on her all the time and if we hear an attack we have to physically go grab her to take her with us to the shelter,” he said.

The sudden attacks and the need to flee psychologically affected Shahd more than his five siblings. His father describes his reactions:

Every time there was an airstrike, the kids got terrified, and we started screaming and trying to run to the shelters and when she saw us in that situation, she started crying. Now whenever there is something unexpected, even if someone rushes into the house, she starts crying.


Because the war lasted for most of Shahd’s young life, she never attended school and had few opportunities to learn sign language while attending informal classes provided by a humanitarian organization. According to Ahmed, his lack of education and ongoing support has been detrimental to his development and mental health:

It’s very hard for her; she grows up and wants to be able to explain herself and say what she feels or what she needs. We don’t understand what she needs most of the time. Even other children her age don’t understand her. She then gets angry and frustrated because we don’t know what she needs or wants.

When Human Rights Watch first interviewed Ahmed in October 2020, the family was living in a Kafar Houm camp for displaced people in northwestern Syria, where they struggled to access health care, devices hearing aids and education for Shahd. When Human Rights Watch interviewed Ahmed in June 2022, after his family moved to Azaz, Aleppo, Shahd had started going to his brother’s school once a week “just to pass the time.” He said she was learning nothing due to a lack of access to qualified teachers and he feared she would grow up uneducated.


Shahd is happy with her brothers, but feels isolated from other children, unable to go to school and access services that would help her express herself and understand others. “It had an impact on his social life,” Ahmed said. “You see her isolated from the other children. She does not socialize with children of her own age; she does not play with them.


Shahd likes to draw and she is also good in other subjects. “She’s brilliant: she does arithmetic, her handwriting is excellent and she’s a good painter,” says her father.

“I hope the children [with disabilities] receive the attention they need, that humanitarian organizations [are able to] support children,” he continued. “[Children] are the builders of our future.


Ghaïth

Ghaith is 13 years old and has a visual impairment. He, his mother and two siblings have been forced to flee their home in Idlib Governorate many times due to war. However, the family eventually returned home at the time of the interview in June 2022. Her mother has been the breadwinner since her father was detained in April 2012.

Ghaith was the only disabled child included in the research who attended school. But it wasn’t easy. Running away from repeated attacks and displacement made it difficult for him to stay in school. “Each time we had to flee the area, he lost most of the [school] year, sometimes up to 9 or 10 months, then you have to start from scratch,” her mother said.


The disruption to Ghaith’s education is something experienced by many Syrian children. But Ghaith faced other obstacles based on her disability. According to the family, he was often misunderstood, rejected or bullied by his peers and even his teachers. But his mother never gave up fighting for her son. When teachers at one school suggested putting Ghaith in a lower class with younger children, she refused. “My kid isn’t stupid – he’s a smart boy – but that’s the problem we’re dealing with,” she said.

Ghaith also expressed his sadness about this:

The teacher pushed me to a lower level because of my handwriting, but I can’t see well [enough] to be able to write [quickly]. I don’t want them to keep pushing me to a lower grade; I want to stay in my class. They should have patience and give me more time to write instead.


His mother told Human Rights Watch that her current school is “more accepting” and has found ways to support Ghaith, including having someone write for him and relying on oral communication to help him learn. Ghaith’s favorite subjects are math and Arabic, and he hopes to become an Arabic teacher, like his father, one day.

His mother is proud of Ghaith’s success but remains worried about his future:

He has excellent oral marks; he works hard and memorizes a lot….

I just hope [his teachers] can help him complete his studies. I don’t want to ruin his future because he has a visual impairment. If Ghaith gets the support he needs, his future will change dramatically. First of all, he can continue his studies and be more autonomous and independent. He will not feel weak among his friends. Now he feels different from the others; he feels more inferior.


Ghaith’s disability has made him a target of bullying, both at school and at a local mosque. The bullying of children towards her son is difficult for his mother to bear:

The hardest part is witnessing bullying by other children. He also stopped going to the mosque because of [the bullying]. They point out to him that he wears glasses and say words that a child cannot stand. The same thing also happens at school.

When asked what he wanted to change for himself and other children with disabilities in Syria, Ghaith said bullying in his community must end. “[People] should not intimidate others, [including] those who are blind.