When I see images on my screen of Syrian refugees fleeing to Europe, I can’t help but think of all the individuals in Syria with disabilities who can’t swim, run, and jump on crowded trains to escape the horrors they’ve seen. Refugees are not refugees until they flee.
For many people with disabilities, including the elderly, the “amazing race” to Europe isn’t an option. A true humanitarian response to the worst refugee crisis since World War II must not be based on the “survival of the fittest.” Rather, the global community must recognize and prioritize the needs and safety of the disabled.
Though I’ve been a disability activist since my college days at Brown University, it wasn’t until I worked with refugees in Lebanon that I was directly confronted with the most significant and unnecessary cause of disability in the world — war. In addition to the countless individuals in Lebanon who suffered trauma or lost limbs in the Lebanese civil war, Lebanon is now host to a wave of refugees physically, emotionally, and mentally disabled by the war in Syria. In Beirut, I’ve witnessed first-hand the traumatic toll and bodily devastation the Syrian war has exacted.
I’ve watched in silent horror as protheses for refugees without limbs are hammered into form — collateral damage come to life. I’ve stood, helpless, as Syrian women in overcrowded refugee camps collapse in my arms in tears. I’ve decried the inaction of the international community in the wet, slippery staircases of Sabra — strewn with live wires — where injured Syrian refugees beg me for medicine. I’ve gazed with alarm into the lifeless eyes of a catatonic child — too traumatized to blink or speak. And I’ve watched in distress as my young Syrian refugee friends hit the deck and scream when a plane flies overhead — assuming a bomb is on the way. War, in its ruthless savagery, is creative with its wicked wounds.
While refugees with disabilities who are still stuck in Syria are the most in need of humanitarian assistance, many of the refugees who are able to reach other countries in the Levant and Europe are in serious need of physical and mental intervention too. According to a recent HelpAge International/Handicap International survey, people with disabilities and special needs amount to 30 percent of the total refugee population in Jordan and Lebanon. Unfortunately, in both the Middle East and Europe, refugees with disabilities are being deprived of the humanitarian aid to which they are entitled. How, honestly, can a disabled refugee or elderly person be expected to crutch hundreds of miles across Europe or fight for their lunch like animals trapped in pens — as happened in Hungary?
When I moved to Lebanon three years ago to teach at the American University of Beirut, I was surprised to find virtually no discourse on disability in the public sphere. Since buildings and streets in Lebanon are inaccessible to the disabled, many people with disabilities remain hidden away at home. Attending to the needs of Syrian refugees with disabilities must begin in the Levant by helping the most vulnerable in the refugees camps resettle in communities where their special needs can be met. Further, the international community must recognize and reward Lebanon for taking in over one million refugees so that more financial and humanitarian resources can be devoted specifically to Syrian refugees with disabilities in Lebanon.
Despite widespread armed conflict in the Levant over the past several decades, mental health treatment in the region remains a serious taboo. When I was invited to conduct a workshop on physical disability for Lebanese high school students this spring, I asked my host if I should discuss mental illness too. “In Lebanon,” he said, “we don’t see mental illness as a disability, and we never talk about it in public because it brings shame.” Knowing that some of my students had attempted suicide, I teamed up with them and their friends to organize the first event in Lebanon featuring a panel of young people with mental illness speaking before an audience of hundreds at the American University of Beirut to break the silence on mental health concerns. Widespread trauma from the Lebanese civil war and the Syrian war can only be alleviated if mental health treatment is no longer taboo, and the shortage of trained mental health professionals in the region is addressed.
It is not enough to resettle refugees in Europe or show them that they are “welcome.” Considerable resources must be devoted to providing adequate medical care, psycho-social support, trauma counseling, employment opportunities, and affordable medical devices like prostheses and wheelchairs to those in need. Refugees with disabilities must be prioritized during registration processes, and their specialized needs should be immediately addressed. Refugee housing must be accessible, and all staff assisting refugees must be aware of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Since refugees with disabilities face additional discrimination and violence on top of racial, cultural, religious, and economic prejudice, they must be made aware of the resources and rights available to them in Europe, and informed on how to report exploitation and abuse. Governments and aid organizations should consult people with disabilities when trying to develop solutions to the problems that refugees with disabilities in particular face.
Disability rights is a global human rights concern. Helping refugees with disabilities should not be an afterthought but a priority. In my volunteer work in Beirut with young cancer patients, college students with mental illness, and disabled war refugees, I’ve witnessed the power of disability advocacy to bring people together across cultural differences, sectarian lines, class divisions, and material concerns. If refugees with disabilities have their needs met, and are encouraged to apply their capacities, it is not only they who will benefit — but also their families and communities.
To prevent the production of more refugees and disabilities, we must abandon complacency and demand an end to the conflict in Syria. But ending the war in Syria will only be the first step — the international community must also be prepared to aggressively attend to the visible and invisible wounds which will undoubtedly impact individuals, families, and communities in the Middle East and Europe for many decades and even generations to come.
Emily Jane O’Dell is an Assistant Professor at Sultan Qaboos University in the Sultanate of Oman.
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