Against all odds: An equal opportunity to learn for refugee children with disabilities

Jordan, Syria

May 27, 2015

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  • Khalid, 7, fled with his family to Zaatari refugee camp more than two years ago. He suffers from muscular dystrophy, but is excelling in first grade with support from Mercy Corps. Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

Against all odds, seven-year-old Khalid is the top student in his first-grade class in Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Khalid, who has muscular dystrophy, lost his mother to cancer at age three. And he has been separated from his father for over two years by war.

Khalid, his stepmother and step-grandmother fled to Zaatari in January 2013 when their village near Dara’a, in southern Syria, was bombed. Khalid’s father had to remain in Syria to work, but it was too dangerous for the rest of family to stay.

Mercy Corps' inclusive education program helps give children with disabilities access to public education, and makes sure their classrooms are equipped to meet their special needs. Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

It was not until September 2014 that Khalid became one of more than 1,100 children with disabilities participating in Mercy Corps’ inclusive education program in refugee camps and host communities in Jordan.

The program, which is supported by UNICEF, provides children with disabilities like multiple sclerosis, blindness and speech impediments with access to public education. It also ensures local schools and staff have the capacity and resources to meet the particular needs of each student.

“Before I started going to school I used to just sit and watch TV,” Khalid says of his life before Mercy Corps.

“More than 50 percent of the children we’re serving in the camp were not previously registered in schools — we brought them to school,” says Tasnim Ayesh, Mercy Corps Project Coordinator. “This itself is a success. We’re changing lives. Those children wouldn’t be in school if we didn’t reach them.”

Through the program, Syrian volunteers canvassed the camp, visiting tents and caravans to identify children with disabilities who were not enrolled in formal education. They met Khalid last summer and spoke with his stepmother, Dilal, in the family’s caravan to explain the program.

Dilal is very protective of Khalid and was initially resistant to send him to school. She was afraid he wouldn’t receive the assistance he needs and that children would bully him because of his disability.

But the Mercy Corps staff eased Dilal’s concerns by ensuring her that, as a participant in the program, Khalid would be provided with an escort to bring him to school and a trained shadow teacher to join him in class.

While the Mercy Corps program provides escorts to bring students to and from school each day, Khalid's stepmother Dilal prefers to walk Khalid herself. Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

Several discussions later, Dilal agreed to register Khalid in first grade on one condition — she would be the one to walk him to and from the school every day.

Tasnim proudly recalls Dilal's reaction to Khalid's immediate success, “When he received his high marks she [Dilal] said to me, ‘Thank you for convincing me to register him! I was so scared for him, I didn’t want to send him to school. But with you encouraging me to do so, he’s now an outstanding student.’”

“I can’t explain how happy I am with his achievement,” Dilal adds, beaming. “When he was awarded at the school ceremony I couldn’t handle it and I started crying. I am so proud if him.”

And no one bullies Khalid. “The entire school is my friend!” he says happily.

Khalid clearly loves school. “I like to learn and study,” he says. “My favorite parts of school are my teachers Khalil and Baha. My favorite subject is English!”

Khalid's shadow teacher, Ibrahim, was a teacher for 35 years in Syria before fleeing to Zaatari. Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

As part of the inclusive education program students with disabilities receive one-on-one personal tutoring sessions with a Syrian volunteer shadow teacher. Mercy Corps trains the volunteers to address the specific mental and physical needs of the students they work with.

Khalid's shadow teacher, Ibrahim, was a teacher for thirty-five years in Syria. He has been working with Khalid since he was first enrolled in September.

“The first assessment results with Khalid indicated that he had memory and concentration problems, so he received intensive one-on-one sessions until his focus improved,” explains Tasnim. “Now he focuses more than the other students.”

And to address Khalid’s special health needs, Mercy Corps also taught Ibrahim and Khalid's stepmother how to do breathing, stretching and range-of-motion exercises with Khalid.

Respiratory activities like blowing up balloons and blowing out candles help keep Khalid's respiratory muscles strong. Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

These exercises, like playing with clay and blowing up balloons, help improve his respiratory system, maintain his level of movement and enhance his fine motor skills, all of which are weakened by his muscular dystrophy.

“He is an excellent student. He is smart, an active person, he does his homework,” Ibrahim says proudly. “There are signs of good things to come from him — he will be an excellent student not only in elementary school, but also in the coming years, and I hope he becomes a doctor or engineer.”

Khalid's best friend in school is Soos. Photo: Sumaya Agha for Mercy Corps

Khalid himself says, “I want to be a doctor!” And with that dogged determination of his, there might be a doctorate in his future.

Dilal and Khalid thought they would be in Jordan for only a month or so; they did not think the war would last long. But it has been more than two years since they arrived in Zaatari, and the ongoing violence in Syria continues to prevent them from going home.

There are now four million Syrian refugees in the Middle East and North Africa.

And as the war ensues, Mercy Corps is committed to making sure the most vulnerable children like Khalid have the support they need to grow, heal and gain the education they will use to — one day — rebuild Syria.

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