Helping disabled Syrian refugees live with dignity in Jordan’s Zaatari camp

Adapting to life in Jordan’s sprawling desert refugee camp Zaatari, is hard for all refugees, but especially so for those with disabilities and special needs.

I met 12-year-old Sidra, who had arrived just two days earlier, with her mother and brother on the main street near the camp entrance. They had just gone to a hospital in the camp to register Sidra and request a wheelchair.

Sidra is paralyzed from the waist down and had to borrow a wheelchair from a neighbor to get to the hospital. Her mother, Fatima, told me that the decision to leave Syria was largely because the fighting made it increasingly difficult to find medical help for her daughter. Even so, she said, her husband, a builder, remained behind because he felt he could still earn money for the family.

“The main reason we came here was for my daughter’s safety. In Syria, if it wasn’t for my daughter’s situation, we would not have left. Whenever there were attacks or bombings, people would go and hide in the shelter, but my daughter couldn’t do that.

“Someone would have to hold her and stay with her. Without God’s mercy, we would have been bombed and died long ago. Just the thought of my daughter being safe and secure here now is worth everything.

The family is hoping to move from their tent to a caravan which will offer more space and privacy. But their key concern is to get a chair for Sidra that can give her more independence to get around the camp.

“I’m very grateful for all the help we have received so far; the organizations here have been very good; they treat us and respect us very well,” said Fatima.

On the waiting list for wheelchairs

However, with more than 171,000 actively registered refugees at Zaatari, it’s a challenge for all agencies, struggling with funding, to provide the level of help needed.

Many other families are also on the waiting list for wheelchairs. 70 year-old Omayya is one of them. She suffered a stroke last year which left her paralyzed. The energetic grandmother, who used to manually harvest her fields, then cook and clean at home, now spends her day lying on a thin mattress in her prefabricated caravan.

“Going to the toilet is the hardest thing,” she confides. “I lie here helplessly all day alone unless someone comes to visit like my daughter in law. If I could have a wheelchair, I think things would be much better. I feel very isolated, lying here on the mattress.”

Oxfam’s social mobilization, gender & accountability specialist, Jeff Silverman, regularly visits Omayya, bringing emergency diapers, and has referred her case to organizations that assist people with special needs, who might be able to offer extra help.

Oxfam’s own toilets and shower blocks, which are near completion in the camp, have been designed to provide disabled-friendly toilets and shower areas. Oxfam is also finding commodes for people like Omayya who are paralyzed or don’t have a wheelchair.

“People with special needs, or elderly people who have physical or medical disabilities, are among the most vulnerable,” said Jeff. “It’s hard for them to get services during distributions or to access water/sanitation or hygiene facilities.”

“There is hope”

With so many in the camp, its easy for people with special needs, especially if they can’t leave their tent or caravan to access help, to become isolated and almost invisible – out of sight from those who might be able to help.

Hamda, a 35 year old mother of seven from Dara’a, is determined that won’t happen to her five year old daughter, Miriam, who was born paralysed from the waist down and relies on diapers.

Miriam is a lively girl, crayoning in a coloring book when I visit her family caravan. Her mother says she also loves to sing. “If any school could accept Miriam, she would definitely go,” said Hamda. “But the school in the camp told me they don’t have the facilities to accept any handicapped children.”

“Words cannot explain our difficulties each day, how hard it is. Miriam is so young and doesn’t realize the problems for now.”

But Hamda says she won’t give up fighting for better opportunities for her daughter and seeking specialist medical help for her condition, which, she believes, could still be cured.

“I believe if she had a walker, it could help her. When she has a wall, she can walk a little on the back of her feet. There is hope. I don’t believe she is a hopeless case.

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