“We are here, we are equal, we have the same rights and we deserve to be heard.” With these statements, 20 Syrian youngsters celebrated International Youth Day in the capital Damascus on August 12th, calling for equality especially for Persons with Disabilities (PWD).
The celebration took place during a boot camp that attracted participants from all over Syria, with the aim of “creating a social environment that reinforces the inclusion of PWDs in the community and contributes to achieving the tenth goal of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to reduce inequalities within and between countries,” as stated in the press release of the camp.
Through cooperation between the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Syria and a local youth project called “Peace Lens”, which is implementing the project, the twenty young people were able to talk openly about their issues, and were happy to share their stories with other young people in their country and around the world. Many of these stories hold the seeds for transformation and change.
An experience to break down the barriers
For around three weeks, ten PWDs and ten without disabilities, ten males and ten females, from ten different Syrian governorates gathered for 14 hours a day in a hotel in the centre of Damascus. They received interactive training on topics that included design, photography, filmmaking and principles of media campaigns. Participants attended deep dialogue exchange sessions and the final goal was to design and implement awareness campaigns advocating the rights of PWDs.
The idea is totally new to Syrian society, as Ibrahim Molhem from the “Peace Lens” project explains. Some local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and initiatives, target PWDs by implementing many projects, but this gathering of them in one place, with non-disabled peers both day and night, 24/7, and encouraging them to socialise in this way, has a powerful effect on the elimination of differences. The PWDs feel like any other young Syrian, with the same rights and obligations and the same final goals at the end of the camp.
Molhem, who is in his thirties, thinks that there are many barriers within Syrian society, which are preventing PWDs from reaching their life goals, and among these barriers is the stigma attached to their conditions, which over time leads PWDs to separate from society. Another important factor that Molhem mentions is the lack of interest in addressing their issues and the unwillingness to prioritise them.
“This is where activities similar to this bootcamp prove their effectiveness, by opening the doors for PWDs to acquire new skills and encouraging them to build upon those skills in the future,” Molhem notes and adds, “We also discovered the importance of working with youth without disabilities, as some of them were not able to accept the differences as we expected. Unfortunately, the Syrian war killed the desire for change in Syria’s young people, so our role is to recreate the team spirit inside each one of them.”
“We need equality, communication and inclusion”
Khalil (30 years old) is one of the participants in the bootcamp. He uses a wheelchair after having been injured a few years ago and he says that the main message he wants to deliver from this experience is “equality”.
“We are all equal, people with disabilities, and people without,” Khalil states. “I’m a young man with disability, and I have the same dreams and thoughts that any other man of my age has. We all dream of having a good job and a decent education, and also of establishing a family, so why would I have unequal access to those things?”
Khalil thinks that one of the main challenges PWDs face in Syria today is society’s perception of disability, which is sometimes mixed with pity. “On the contrary, we are all the same here.” He thinks that this experience should be extended, so inclusion becomes a way of life for all Syrian youth.
"It is worth noting that World Health Organization WHO estimates there are 3 million person who live in Syria with injuries and disabilities."
For Hanan Aynieh, who is also participating in the camp, the importance of this inclusion experience is about opening the door for communication between her, as a deaf girl, and other young people, an experience that she considers a unique and a very important one.
Hanan (21 years) believes that the main problem that deaf people face in Syria, is the lack of interest from non-PWDs to build bridges, thus, they feel isolated and without equality. “But here (in the bootcamp) we are heard and people are listening to our thoughts more,” she adds while a sign-language interpreter translates her rapid signs into words.
Extending this, Yasmine Assi agrees with Hanan. Yasmine, a 23-year-old girl without disability, who is one of the camp trainees, thinks that communication and inclusion are a right for all people, with all types of disabilities.
“I am really glad to be here, and at the same time I feel ashamed for not socialising enough with PWDs in the past,” Yasmine says. “When doing so, we forget about our differences and we share only thoughts and ideas, and this is what really counts.”
Yasmine thinks that inclusion experiences should be widespread and prioritised inside Syria, especially among young people. She notes that PWDs always have their own strengths which the community should utilise in the best possible way. “This way we can really have a better future for our country,” she concludes.