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A forgotten consequence of war


Hammoudi and his grandfather. © Christian Aid

Syrian refugees with disabilities are often unable to get the care they need. Tabitha Ross visits a Lebanese organization making a difference. 

Last week, as I visited Lebanon’s Beqaa valley to meet the families of Syrian refugees with disabilities, I was reminded of Sam, a beautiful six-year-old boy I know back in Britain who has cerebral palsy.

Sam’s parents, like all parents, are extremely proud of his achievements and want the best possible care for him. Yet despite their affluence, security and access to free healthcare, it has still been, at times, a difficult and frustrating process to ensure Sam receives the full range of support he needs.  

I wondered how Syrian refugees in Lebanon, already living in the direst of circumstances, were possibly able to care and provide for their disabled family members, helping them to reach and fulfil their potential.   

Hammoudi, who is the same age as Sam, was born in Damascus two years before the war broke out. His complex physical and mental disabilities, as well as the arduous journey he and his family endured to find safety in Lebanon, have not taken anything away from the sweetest smile. He blows kisses at me when I smile back and giggles when I pretend to catch and eat the kisses.  

Given two life-saving operations by the Syrian health service, Hammoudi’s third operation was cancelled when violence overtook the country more than four years ago. With only 45 per cent of hospitals reported to be fully functioning in Syria – most at capacity with high numbers of war casualties – and medical facilities in anti-government areas particularly targeted, it is no wonder that people with disabilities are no longer able to receive the full range of care they need.  

Yet incredibly, Hammoudi has learnt to walk for the first time, thanks to physiotherapy provided by the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union (LPHU), a partner of Christian Aid. Hammoudi’s family, overjoyed by his progress, now worry that they will not be able to pay for a much-needed operation to correct the curvature of his spine. ‘He is the son of my son, but he is dearer to me than my own child,’ says his grandfather Mohammed. ‘I’m doing everything I can to find him treatment, but nothing comes of it.’

There are over a million refugees from Syria registered with the UN in Lebanon (unregistered refugees bring the true total far higher). And more than two thirds say healthcare is ‘inaccessible and unaffordable’. The vast majority who cannot afford private healthcare are reliant on the UN and local and international NGOs, but they can only afford to support a few.  

At two years old, Zainab is only the size of a baby, partly due to her Down’s syndrome but also no doubt due to the conditions in which she lives – lack of access to healthy food has affected her growth. She shares a tent with her parents and three older brothers; in the summer it’s an oven, and in the winter if it’s not snowing it’s a mud flood. Only a tarpaulin sheet separates the living-sleeping-cooking area from a squat toilet that gives off a sour smell even on this cold day.  

Zainab’s parents received little follow-up after her birth, and her Down’s syndrome was not recognized until she was eight months old. Yet with physiotherapy from LPHU this year, she has been able to sit unsupported for the first time. 

I also met 23-year-old Abu Ali. He was in the second year of a law degree when a bomb hit his house while he was studying inside. Badly burnt and paralysed from the waist down by a piece of shrapnel, he was unable to go to an official hospital as people with injuries sustained in anti-government areas, particularly young men, risk being accused of being part of the opposition, arrested and killed. His father brought him to Lebanon, where they now live in a tiny metal container in an informal refugee settlement. Thanks to LPHU’s mobile team, Abu Ali has been able to regain some strength and co-ordination in his arms and trunk.

 ‘Just here in this camp there are so many wounded,’ Abu Ali’s father tells me. ‘One has lost her eyes, another an arm, another a leg. There are many catastrophes as a consequence of the war.’

More than a million Syrians have been injured in the conflict to date. While the global average for proportion of population with a disability is 15 per cent, at least 22 per cent of Syrian refugees have some form of impairment. 

People living with disabilities – including older persons with disabilities – are, according to the UN, the world’s largest minority group. Yet less than 1 per cent of international humanitarian aid is dedicated to addressing their needs, even though in an emergency context they make up an even greater proportion of the population due to injuries.

The difference LPHU is making to the people who have received support through this project is enormous. And as Hammoudi, Zainab and Abu Ali showed me, their parents clearly feel the same joy and pride in their progress and achievements as Sam’s parents do about his, back home in Britain.

Christian Aid, alongside supporting local partners such as LPHU, has committed to strengthen its emergency response to ensure that people with specific needs are visible and receive appropriate assistance in a manner that is dignified and safe. It is currently rolling out Minimum Standards for Age and Disability Inclusion as part of a wider initiative supported by DFID to ensure that everyone has the chance to live an empowered and meaningful life and be included.  LPHU is supported through donations to the Christian Aid Syria crisis appeal.

3 December is the UN’s International Day of Persons with Disabilities

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