Advancing the rights of Palestinian children with disabilities in Lebanon

Wafa Dakwar, Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP)’s Senior Programme Officer in Lebanon, recently visited Al-Buss refugee camp in Tyre, southern Lebanon, to visit the Sour Community Disability Project (SCDP), run in partnership with the Palestinian Women Humanitarian Organisation. The SCDP provides multidisciplinary specialised services for children with disabilities and physiotherapy services for adults with disabilities. While there, Wafa met Siham* and her family, and heard about how they have been supported by the project.

Siham is a Palestinian mother of three daughters, including two with disabilities – Lara* and Jana* – who are 12 and nine years old respectively. Lara and Jana have been receiving specialised multidisciplinary services from the MAP-supported SCDP.

Siham used to live with her husband, Hussam*, in Ein el Helweh refugee camp, which hosts the largest number of Palestinian refugees among the 12 Palestinian camps in Lebanon. However, after witnessing multiple clashes between rival armed groups in the camp, the family decided to move to Tyre, where Siham’s brother lives.

The family rented a small, shack-like house in a Palestinian gathering (an informal camp), near the sea. “In summer, the house is nice, but in winter it is very bad. The house is too close to the sea, so every year, high waves cause it to flood, and our furniture gets ruined,” said Siham. “The sound of rain hitting the tin roof is very loud and sometimes scares my daughters. But I am blessed to have a house to shelter us in these difficult conditions in the country.”  

Siham's family home in Tyre, southern Lebanon.

Hussam used to work as a painter, but since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic he has not been able to find work. Instead he has been staying at home and helping Siham care for their daughters. They have sold most of their belongings, including their washing machine and other electronic devices, in order to meet their children’s basic needs.

Lara was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at nine months when her doctor referred her to a neurologist and requested tests for her. Siham later heard from her neighbours about SCDP’s services and took Lara to its rehabilitation centre. Since then, the SCDP team have been by her side supporting her and her daughters at every step.

According to Siham, her daughter’s skills have developed a lot over the years. “Even though I did not complete my education, I now feel like an expert after receiving many trainings from the project’s team,” said Siham. She has received training on childhood development, positive parenting, the rights of people with disabilities and child protection, in addition to engaging in practical trainings to further develop her children’s skills at home. The latter came in handy during the lockdown period, when it was not possible to go to the centre and the parents had to implement the rehabilitation sessions at home under the remote supervision of the project’s specialists.

Siham also benefitted from the project’s psychological counselling services which, according to her, made her stronger, more patient, and helped her better understand her children’s feelings and needs. Many new mothers of children with disabilities who join the project come to Siham for advice, and she does her best to support them.

Siham is well-aware of the importance of early intervention, so when Jana was born, she sought the SCDP’s team for assessments and help as soon as she started identifying signs of developmental delay. Siham has bought some inexpensive tools and created other simple ones, with the support of the project’s specialists, which her daughters use to play, learn, and exercise their fine-motor skills at the same time.

During my visit to the family’s home, I was amazed by the warmth and cooperation between all its members. Colourful sheets covered the humble furniture, and beautiful drawings by Lara and Jana were placed on the walls. They were all smiling and used positive language when they communicated with one another. Hussam, who was supporting Siham all the time and helping Jana with her exercises, said: “Siham and I need to cooperate to take care of the house. If one of us gets tired or breaks down, the whole family will suffer. I love my children, and I would do anything for them just to see them happy.”

Siham believes that the long COVID-19 lockdown period had a negative effect on the children’s wellbeing. “Children with disabilities have very few opportunities to go out, socialise, and play with other children. Going to SCDP’s centre is the only such opportunity for many children,” said Siham. “My daughters love going to the centre and spending time with the team who are very kind and caring. They also enjoy doing the individual rehabilitation activities and participating in group activities with other children. Lara and Jana used to ask to go to the centre all the time during the lockdown. In open days, I used to see some children cry because they didn’t want the activities to be over,” she added.

Hussam expressed his disappointment with the community’s attitudes and the way they treat people with disabilities as it contributes to their marginalisation and isolation. “Children with disabilities and their families face bullying and stigma. When I take my children out, people stop and stare and sometimes say hurtful things. This doesn’t stop me from taking my daughters out; I take them with me to the supermarket and other places I go to as it builds their self-confidence,” Hussam explained. Siham and Hussam hope for people with disabilities in Lebanon to have their rights respected, and to be given tools and support that help them to achieve their full potential.

When asked about additional services or activities they would like to have in the project, Lara hoped to have more drawing and recreational activities where she can have fun with other children. Jana said she would like to have swimming trips and told me that her father promised to take her swimming that afternoon. The family thanked MAP and SCDP’s team for supporting children with disabilities and their families.

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*Names have been changed to protect the identity of those interviewed.

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