Paving The Way For People With Disabilities In Lebanon

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on March 22 2011

The Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union’s mission is to promote dignity through equal opportunities and ensure the social and economic integration of people with disabilities in Lebanon. Amy Hall finds out more, and looks at one particularly inspiring case study; the story of 19 year old Naghem Hasha…

People are only ‘disabled’ because they are in situations that make it harder for them to do things than ‘able bodied people’. Lack of facilities, discrimination and little of understanding mean that people can miss out on education, employment and face social exclusion.

This is especially a problem in Lebanon where Christian Aid partner, the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union(LPHU), calculate 7% of the population have some kind of disability. Poverty can take many forms, and although in Lebanon things like life expectancy are high, many people are locked in poverty by laws and structural inequality. People with disabilities are often marginalised from public life.

Naghem Hasha is a 19 year old student and wheelchair user who is determined to prove negative perceptions wrong. Tabitha Ross, Christian Aid’s Middle East Communications officer, spoke to her on a recent trip to Lebanon.

“People look at you and treat you differently,” says Naghem. “If I cared what others say, I wouldn’t even leave my room. I can prove that I am more than my chair. It doesn’t matter what others say and think – what matters is what you say and think of yourself.”

It is partly this determination, and help from LPHU, which means that Naghem is now the first wheelchair user at her university. Young wheelchair users in Naghem’s home region of the Bekaa do not usually have the chance to study at local universities, but LPHU raised awareness at the university about inclusion and accessibility and Naghem now studies Business there.

“My friends from school who had disabilities did not go to university, even though I went to school in Beirut,” explains Naghem. “Some of them didn’t go because they had to live at home and they couldn’t find a course in their area; some had difficulties in getting accepted, or there was no disability access in the university. Some didn’t want to enter a world in which they would be different.”

However, Naghem has had no problems with discrimination at university and says she is treated like anyone else. She is cautiously hopeful about the future: “There’s still lots of barriers here to doing what you want. As much as I can, I liberate myself from my situation, so we’ll see what I am able to achieve.”

The Director of her university, Saad Hamzi, thinks Naghem’s future is bright. “She’s open and loves people and they love her back. She’s very active and has been getting good grades, especially in maths.”

It also seems Naghem’s pioneering spirit has paved the way for more local wheelchair users to be able to attend university. “Naghem has really opened the way for others, says Saad Hamzi. “She’s encouraged us to accept others like her case, or even more complicated cases.”

LPHU’s mission is ‘to promote dignity through equal opportunities and ensure the social and economic integration of people with disabilities’ – and it seems that for Naghem, they are well on the way to doing that.

Freedom Of Expression In Lebanon

First appeared on Ctrl.Alt.Shift on March 9 2011

Amy Hall reports on the work of Mouvement Social in Lebanon and how they combine creative space with academic excellence and support for young people…

In education when too much emphasis is put on exams, league tables and grades, the opportunity for creativity can be neglected. But the arts can also be a great healer and outlet for frustration.

Mouvement Social, a Christian Aid partner in Lebanon, promotes the value of creativity, as well as access to a good academic education. They are a volunteer movement of young people who provide social services to Lebanon’s poorest and most marginalised communities, including making sure children who have been excluded from school get a good education.

Christian Aid Communications Officer Tabitha Ross visited Lebanon and spoke to young people who had been to Mouvement Social schools. Children traumatised by conflict can be disruptive in school which often leads to exclusions. Widespread poverty means many parents can’t afford to send their children to school if there are no free ones locally. Also, some children are excluded from Lebanon’s school system on grounds of nationality,  such as the children of Syrians or Kurds working in the country.

Ali Al Afee, who is 14 years old, is a pupil at one of Mouvement Social’s schools. He was expelled from his last school after a cycle of violence: “I got angry whenever someone spoke to me. I also used to hit teachers – and the teachers used to hit me too, with a big stick.”

Ali lived through the war in Lebanon in the summer of 2006 during which his neighbour was killed after a bomb fell on his house. Now he dreams of being a film director: “I like the arts. The theatre helps people to express themselves and talk about the important things in life.”

16 year old Hanan Madyak’s parents had been too poor to send her and her sister to school before she found out about Mouvement Social alternative education centres, which are free. After training in photography she is now an intern at a studio that has offered her a job when she finishes her education.

“Mouvement Social created a 180° turnaround in my life,” she says. “If I’d not come here, I’d have stayed at home, learning nothing. There’s many girls in this situation.”

Hossam Houhou is now aged 17 and says his life has also turned around. He went to extra classes and a summer school provided by Mouvement Social and now helps run the issues based theatre workshops on things like domestic violence, drug abuse and the differences between people.

Mouvement Social also puts great importance on achievement in the more academic areas of school as Ali explains: “The rules here are strict.  There’s an evaluation system and you get penalties for violence… I think it’s a good system.”

Mouvement Social’s combination of creative freedom and high standards of academic teaching are made stronger by its commitment to Citizenship, defined by Hossam as: “How to accept the other.”

“The solution is to work on yourself and accept others, and then society will change.”