More Help Needed for Syria’s Disabled and Maimed

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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The ‘Fat and Fabulous’ Farce

There are terms tossed about in the media recently: “fat acceptance,” “fat and fabulous,” “fat-shaming.” I am a woman of size. Fat. I don’t follow up that word with a sparkly adjective because it isn’t warranted. Why? Firstly, “fat” is a word offensive only to the people who decide it is offensive, which I don’t. I find it merely descriptive. Secondly, “fat shaming” is a recent social construct/concept to which I don’t subscribe.

Shame only works on a willing recipient.

I don’t need anyone’s approval to be who I am and look the way I look. No one does. I’m not being snarky by saying that– we just don’t need it, though it is nice to have. In its absence, I don’t personally walk about bemoaning my body mass index, nor how I am received because of it, nor am I heralding my size as a moving part of my proposed fabulosity. I have other things on my mind. At least, I do until I am reminded by a fellow plus-sizer that I should redirect my attention to making society more tolerable of my fat.

If there are opportunities in life that I have missed based on some nefarious, behind-the-scenes fat bias, I am happy to miss them. There are plenty of others in spaces and places where I’d likely better belong if my dress size counts me out.

The spotlight is often placed on the same people of size who inadvertently helped plug the spotlight in. They spend as much time taking a stand for “fat acceptance” as their healthier counterparts do in the gym. The subject continues to abound with every support group, blog, article and reality show lauding “fat and fabulousness”; magazines with near-naked women flaunting their curves as a big “F-YOU” to their purported haters. Those women are all beautiful, but isn’t the energy wasted? Who is the target audience? Why does anyone care?

Here’s where I am really going to tell you the truth. Someone on the team has to.

There are some average-weighters who have concerns that may be worth a listen. A lady in coach may find the duration of a flight challenging when my thigh spread creeps over to her side of the seating. A fellow employee may be concerned when your fifth trip to the cardiologist drives his healthcare premiums up. These seem like valid concerns. Plus-sized folks are conditioned to avoid these topics, and any conversation related to their own wellness.

Not everyone who is fat suffers from diabetes, heart and blood pressure problems. I don’t. But I will without a change. A high BMI indisputably causes medical melee on a body. In spite of what we hear repeatedly by naysayers, if you are obese, you are not healthy.

Another zinger: Most of us in the fat-body club are here because we choose to be here. We don’t make good food choices; we don’t move our bodies the way we could. The majority of us make excuses to the tune of: “I have tried every diet… They don’t work!” and “I have a thyroid problem.” Some have issues that cause weight gain, for sure. Disabilities and medications can significantly cause the pounds to quickly pile on, like prescribed corticosteroids and antidepressants. Even then, though, weight gain can be effectively managed with life adjustments. The majority of us don’t suffer from those, if we are being honest, or didn’t, until our bodies buckled under the proverbial weight.

A person who educates himself in the science of nutrition, who eats whole (unprocessed, unrefined) foods consistently and proportionately, with regular cardio/fat-burning exercise, is not likely going to be or remain fat. It is conceptually that simple. I know all of this. I know what I’m supposed to be doing. I am not currently doing it. I chose this for now, so this is where I am.

I recently watched a girl on a new reality show (based on her size) exuberantly espouse her love for her “fat and fabulous” body and its position in her life. Two scenes and 10 minutes later, she was sobbing, suffering because of her weight in dating, fashion, strangers’ comments, and her parents’ wishes for her to become healthy. Funny, isn’t it, how we can turn genuine concern and love into “you don’t accept me”? They do accept us, so much that they want to keep us alive longer, not bawling in front of a T.V. camera on a show centered on the least interesting part of ourselves like that girl who spends her life trying to persuade everyone that she is fat and fabulous. She’s the one who seems to need to believe it, not everyone else.

She is not fabulous because she is fat. Neither am I. Neither are you.

You are fabulous because you’re an amazing mother or friend. You’re the guy who made someone giggle, or who shared his last dollar. You’re fabulous for being that third grade teacher a student will remember as the most impactful when she is 35, who may even try to visit you in your retirement home years. You’re fabulous because you’re silly and fun, or reflective and wise. You’re fabulous because you rocked those 5″ sequined stripper heels on a night out with the girls. You’re fabulous because you’re 50, but your spirit is 19.

If you’re not a total schmuck, you’re fabulous because you’re you. You have elements that truly embody (no pun intended) your unique spirit.

“Fat-shaming” is a media trend on an annoying upswing, fueled by fat people who keep it alive like a stoked fire. This is not a crusade in which we should want to be included. We’re losing the points we’re trying to nail down under the guise of self-love and acceptance. The world can’t give that to us. We take that for our ourselves. When we do, the right ones will follow along.

THAT’S what’s fabulous.

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