By Rob Sixsmith
DAMASCUS, Syria, 11 October 2010 – Like other countries in this region, Syria has long wrestled with how best to meet the needs of its citizens living with disabilities. The seventh Middle East and North Africa Regional Special Olympics, held recently in Damascus, indicated that Syria has chosen to celebrate persons with disabilities and work towards inclusiveness.
|VIDEO: 29 September 2010 - UNICEF's Rob Sixsmith reports on the seventh Middle East and North Africa Regional Special Olympics, held in Damascus, Syria. Watch in RealPlayer|
Over 2,000 athletes from 23 countries gathered for the games. The opening ceremony featured First Lady Asma al-Assad and other top-level patrons, as well as a host of regional and global partners, including UNICEF. The speakers emphasized that children with disabilities have the same rights as all other children, including the right to develop to their full potential.
‘We’ve seen in the last three days an unbelievable level of commitment from the Syrian Government, her Excellency the First Lady and the ministries,” noted Special Olympics International President and CEO J. Brady Lum.
Special Olympics Senior Director for Multilateral Partnerships and Development David Evangelista echoed Mr. Lum’s point. “I hope that what happened here in Syria is evidence of a brighter future for people with disabilities,” he said. “It is an example of the difference that UNICEF, when combined with other groups, can achieve.”
Shift in attitude
The sporting and public events were, naturally, the key elements of the regional Special Olympics. But also significant were the specialist health and training initiatives that took place alongside the games, such as a UNICEF-chaired information session on schools and young people with disabilities.
|© UNICEF Syria/2010/Sixsmith|
|A young member of the Iraqi football team celebrates victory during the seventh Middle East and North Africa Regional Special Olympics games, held in Syria.|
The games were perhaps most significant for the incremental shift in attitude they represented with regard to the humanizing of people with disabilities. This shift was widely and acutely experienced by the many Special Olympics volunteers in Damascus.
“Before this event, I had absolutely no experience of people with special needs, but as a volunteer I received training and interacted with them,” said Alaa Muzayyen, a recent university graduate. “I now feel they are people who have the spirit of innovation and really react well to those who care for them.”
This atmosphere of interaction and acceptance is just one reason for UNICEF’s global partnership with the Special Olympics. But equally central is the sense of achievement and community felt by the youngest athletes themselves. Children, trainers, volunteers and parents alike delighted in the opportunities represented by the regional games.
“It’s indescribable how it felt for me. I felt his talent came out,” noted the mother of one young Special Olympics athlete, Abdalla Falloon. “I’ve known for ages that people who suffer brain damage are talented in many ways. Society often thinks children with disabilities cannot join society, but with events like this they prove themselves capable of achieving many things.”
|© UNICEF Syria/2010/Sixsmith|
|Syrian actor Moustafa Al Khani meets a young Special Olympics contestant.|
The very public nature of these games confirms that Syria is keen to adhere to the key provisions of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which requires signatory countries to take measures that help disabled people live independently.
The wide potholes, high curbs and inaccessible public transport system that define Damascus, like other Middle Eastern cities, suggest that challenges remain. But the success of this round of the regional Special Olympics can only add leverage for advocates of better facilities for persons with disabilities.