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Syrian children with disabilities struggle with life in a refugee camp

© UNICEF Syrian Arab Republic/2013/Jensen
Ten-year-old Rania was born with a back problem that has kept her from walking. A refugee in the Za’atari camp in Jordan, she attends a newly opened UNICEF-supported school and hasn't let her disability come in the way of her education.

By Malene Jensen

Like all children, those with disabilities have many abilities, but are often excluded from society by discrimination and lack of support, leaving them among the most invisible and vulnerable children in the world.

UNICEF launches its flagship report The State of the World’s Children 2013: Children with Disabilities on 30 May 2013. The report brings global attention to the urgent needs of a largely invisible population.

For Syrian children and their families who have fled the conflict in their country, living with physical and mental disabilities poses huge day-to-day challenges, but they still look to a brighter future. 

ZA’ATARI, Jordan, 29 May 2013 – Rania dreams of one day becoming a teacher. Every morning, her mother and brother wake up at dawn to help her get to school. Although it’s only a short walk, Rania is unable to make it on her own.

White gravel surrounds the tents and caravans in the camp where they live, and Rania needs to be carried to the main road where her wheelchair will work. 

For 10-year-old Rania, the Syrian conflict has meant the loss of her home, her school, and friends and family members. It has also meant missing the surgery in Damascus that might have helped her walk.

Instead, fighting forced the family to flee to this refugee camp of nearly 180,000 people, and Rania remains in a wheelchair, suffering from a back problem since birth. 

But with the support of her determined mother and helpful brother, she refuses to give up on her education and has her eyes fixed on becoming a teacher and one day helping her country to rebuild.

A lost generation

Now in its third year, the Syrian crisis has taken an enormous human toll. Some 80,000 people – including thousands of children – have been killed, 4.25 million have been internally displaced, and 1.4 million more have fled to neighbouring countries, according to United Nations estimates.

As humanitarian needs rapidly outpace funds, the children of Syria are paying the highest price and risk growing up a lost generation, physically and psychologically scarred for life from the consequences of a prolonged conflict. 

The most vulnerable among them are children with disabilities, whose right to assistance – ranging from health to education – is often overlooked in humanitarian response. As a result, they are left more vulnerable to a life of poverty and abuse, and denied their rightful place in helping strengthen and rebuild their communities and countries.

“Everything is harder here,” Rania’s mother, Reem, says, including access to medical care and a washroom that is suitable for Rania’s needs.     

UNICEF and partners have installed ramps to lavatories at schools and more than 300 camp latrine units, or have provided other solutions for those unable to access washrooms easily. In addition, they are exploring other areas for promoting an inclusive approach, such as through school curriculums and support for children with disabilities. 

Precise data on children living with disabilities is difficult to determine. The 2011 World Report on Disability estimates that there are around 93 million children age 14 or younger living with a moderate or severe disability. This figure, based on data from 2004, is speculative and may be much higher.

Among Syrians who have been displaced or have fled to other countries, the percentage of children with disabilities is disproportionally high, given how many have been injured or profoundly distressed as a result of the conflict.

What will become of him?

Just a few tents away from Rania’s, Sawsan looks with worry at her grandson, who lies motionless on a mattress. He is more than a year old, but the boy has not yet started crawling, and Sawsan fears that he has inherited his father’s intellectual disability. 

“It was difficult enough to raise his father in Syria, but here [in the camp] life in general is very hard,” she says before tears start to well. The family left their Syrian homeland in too much of a hurry to bring the medicine for her grandson. “What will become of him?” she asks.

It is children like Sawsan’s grandson whom Rania is eager to help by one day becoming a teacher and being part of an inclusive environment in which he and thousands of children like him can actively participate and thrive in their society.

“I love school and to be with other children,” Rania says, noting that she longs for the day when the family can go back home. “I have great friends here, but I miss my friends and life in Syria.”

The names in the story have been changed to protect the identity of the children and their families.



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