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Gender and Social Inclusion

Formidable Challenges and New Opportunities: Syrian Refugees with Disabilities

Earlier this month, the number of Syrian refugees passed the 1 million mark. According to the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR) there are now more than 375,000 Syrian refugees in neighboring Lebanon.

In any refugee crisis, persons with disabilities face significant challenges accessing vital humanitarian assistance programs. Emma Pearce, the Women’s Refugee Commission’s senior program officer for our disabilities initiative, is in Lebanon this month at the request of UNHCR to provide program advice and support.

During field visits with Handicap International and UNCHR’s community services team, Emma met people with newly acquired impairments as a result of injuries from the conflict in Syria. Agencies report seeing increasing numbers of refugees with new disabilities due to war injuries, and are coordinating with each other and Lebanese health services to provide medical care and rehabilitation. Emma also met with persons with developmental delays, hearing and vision impairments and their families – and noted that many are living in collective shelters that they share with other families, renting rooms in buildings still under construction or living in tented settlements.

In one report, Emma described meeting Alia*, a 13-year-old Syrian girl living in a tent settlement. Alia is blind. She was learning braille in Syria, but when she and her family fled, she lost all of her braille books and machine for writing, one of her key means of communication. She told Emma that despite her restricted mobility, she is learning her way around the settlement, but worries about falling over, and sometimes bumps into people and objects.

Refugees living with disabilities like Alia are among the most hidden and neglected of all displaced people. They are excluded from or unable to access most aid programs because of physical and social barriers or because of negative attitudes and biases. They are often not identified when aid agencies and organizations collect data and assess needs during and after a humanitarian disaster. They are more likely to be forgotten when health and support services are provided. Often, refugees with disabilities are more isolated following their displacement than when they were in their home communities. For all these reasons, the Women’s Refugee Commission is giving priority attention to advancing the rights of persons with disabilities and promoting their full inclusion in relief and recovery programs in Lebanon and elsewhere.

In addition to working with traditional humanitarian organizations, the Women’s Refugee Commission has also recognized the important role local organizations can play in supporting refugees with disabilities. In one report from the field, Emma called our attention to the proactive approach of Lebanese nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and government agencies in the Bekaa Valley to include Syrian refugees with disabilities in their work. One organization, the Lebanese Physical Handicapped Union, has already included seven Syrian refugees in their vocational training program. A Social Development Center, run by the Ministry of Social Affairs, has deaf Syrian children in their classes. The Lebanese Democratic Association for Women’s Rights in Baalbek which empowers women through programs in various areas including vocational training and prevention and response to gender-based violence already actively engages Lebanese women with disabilities in their work and they are now looking to expand their programs to Syrian refugees.

Emma’s reports from the field are hopeful in some respects, but we also know that there are so many urgent needs among the Syrian refugee population. We hope that donor governments will respond most generously to the UN refugee agency’s appeal for funds so that lifesaving assistance can be provided to those in greatest need, including refugees with disabilities.

*Name changed to protect identity

Gender and Social Inclusion