“We’re equal and everyone is the same” UNICEF Azerbaijan works on promoting inclusion and acceptance
By Sarah Marcus
BAKU, Azerbaijan, 2010 - Several children and teenagers are quietly and happily completing different tasks in a pleasant room, supervised by two or three caregivers. Some children draw, a couple of boys play cards, others are making special pictures where the images are picked out in glittering beads which the children sew onto cloth. Many of these beautiful finished products hang on the walls.
These children all have mental or physical disabilities, but they have been lucky enough to find their way to ‘Mushvig’, a daycare centre for children and young people with disabilities in Garadagh, a town about one hour’s drive from Azerbaijan’s capital Baku.
‘Mushvig’ is named after founder Valida Abbasova’s son, who was born unable to walk. It provides an impressive range of physical, mental and emotional therapies for children with disabilities and their families and over the ten years it has been in operation has supported about 450 children. Thus far its main funding sources have been the Soros Foundation and Garadagh Cement, a local company, while UNICEF has provided valuable support for administrative costs.
Abbasova’s love for each child in her care is plain to see. In the room where the children are at work, she picks each one out in turn, hugs them, introduces them to the UNICEF visitors and explains how well the child is doing.
‘This is Arzu, she is ten,’ she says, an arm around the little girl as she shows us a page which Arzu has scribbled all over in bright colours.
‘These scribbles are a great achievement for her. I think maybe in two years she will even be able to draw properly,’ she explains.
‘This is Aslan. He is now 14 and he came to us five or six years ago in a wheelchair. His mother was very pessimistic and thought he would never be mobile, but now he can walk with some help,’ Abbasova says proudly.
Sure enough, Aslan drags himself to his feet and recites a poem in Turkish.
‘Mushvig’ is full of these stories – stories of children who were given little or no reason to hope for an improvement in their condition but who with the indefatigable help of this centre’s staff, have come on in leaps and bounds.
‘When my son Mushvig was born with a disability, I tried to think of how I could attend work and not lose my job. I needed somewhere to leave Mushvig for the whole day,’ recalls Abbasova.
According to Abbasova, there are 160 children with disabilities in the Garadagh region, 60 of who attend the centre. It plays a crucial role in keeping families together and keeping children with disabilities out of institutions.
‘When we accept children into the centre we work with the parents also. We conduct different training for them. I conduct training in child rights, our occupational therapists help the parents to learn how to support the children, dress them, feed them – sometimes parents do not know even these details,’ explained Abbasova.
In a physical therapy room a little girl is practicing how to walk with the aid of special equipment as her mother looks on.
‘My husband never accepted his daughter’s disability but when he came here and saw the facilities and how they work here, even he changed his mind. And now she can walk well compared with before, using these facilities,’ says the mother.
The centre has physical therapy facilities, a physiotherapy room and a sensory therapy room filled with coloured lights, beanbags and other objects which are of special help to children with disabilities, especially those with autism.
A range of qualified and experienced therapists works at the centre, including a psychologist. Theirs is a labour of love, as the salaries they receive are paltry.
In addition to these dedicated people a team of volunteers operates a mobile service which travels around the local area, providing various types of therapy for children who are confined to bed.
The centre also runs a theatre group for young people with disabilities, organizes an annual theatre festival for 16 organizations working with children with disabilities and has designed and produced workbooks and manuals for working with children with disabilities.
The impact of the centre’s work is truly transformative for everyone who comes into contact with it.
Abbasova has taken the sadness of giving birth to a child with a disability and turned it into an operation which gives hope and choices to hundreds of other children and their families.
‘There really is a very big difference between our children and those who are in residential institutions,’ she says.
‘We turn our children back towards life,’ she adds.
The lives of parents too, are improved manifold by their children’s involvement with the centre. Abbasova says that many parents who bring their children to the centre are initially embarrassed to bring them out in public due to the stigma still attached to disability in Azerbaijan.
‘Now,’ after some time attending the centre, ‘they have lost this shame,’ she says happily
Abbasova’s attitude to disability allows all who come into contact with her to see it in a new light.
‘A disabled person thinks he is disabled only when he cannot do something because something holds him back or the facilities are not adequate,’ she says, stressing the importance of wheelchair ramps and handrails in public buildings to aid those with physical disabilities.
‘Every single person who experiences barriers can consider themselves disabled. If we all experience barriers, we are all disabled,’ she continues.
When disability is not a barrier
16-year-old Yulia Lukhtina is sitting in UNICEF’s Baku office, chatting confidently in excellent English – she has recently returned from an academic year spent attending school and living with a family in the United States.
In June 2010, Yulia attended a week-long summer camp aimed at promoting integration and healthy lifestyles in Lenkeran, southern Azerbaijan, organised by the National Assembly of Youth Organisations of Azerbaijan and supported by UNICEF and the Azerbaijan government.
‘I think it was really good that at the camp disabled kids and able-bodied kids mixed – it was good for everybody to understand that we’re equal and everyone is the same,’ she says, echoing Abbasova’s description of those with disabilities as ‘just people’.
Yulia has a physical disability which makes walking difficult, but she is determined that it won’t hold her back.
‘My mother has the same condition as I do, but she can’t walk because she didn’t go out when she was young because she cared what people thought,’ she explains.
‘But I don’t care. I always walk with my head high,’ she says emphatically.
She is a determined young lady and takes full advantage of all life has to offer her. Her year in the United States was an extremely positive experience, especially in terms of seeing how people with disabilities are treated there and learning how to stand up for herself.
‘I learnt in America not to care if people stared and also to say to them “What are you looking at”,’ she says.
She feels that Azerbaijan has a lot of catching up in terms of how people with disabilities are treated.
‘I don’t think we have disability rights in Azerbaijan – in the States there are ramps and rails everywhere, here we don’t have these things everywhere and sometimes it’s difficult for me to walk. Sometimes here people look at or laugh at people with disabilities – not just little kids, but teenagers too,’ she explains.
But Yulia intends to contribute to Azerbaijan’s future by changing the way people think about those with disabilities and by changing the way they are treated.
One of her goals is to create an organization in Azerbaijan which will make these changes she dreams of a reality.
Another goal is to go to university and become an English-Russian translator.
Yulia says that the recent UNICEF-supported summer camp she attended helped her to think she could achieve her goals.
‘It really taught me good communication skills. This really helps, now I can talk to other people and tell them my thoughts about these ramps and railings!’ she exclaims.