While forcibly displaced people with disabilities may face obstacles, their disabilities do not define them.
Fifteen per cent of the world’s population has a disability. They include millions of people uprooted from their homes by wars and persecution. Some were living with disabilities before they fled, while others acquired a disability as a result of conflict or during their flight to safety.
Many displaced people with disabilities are already fierce advocates and leaders, driving change and seeking solutions, despite the additional barriers they may face. The inclusion of diverse voices of people with disabilities in program planning and policy is essential to making sure they can apply their skills and talents to benefit themselves, their families and their communities. UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is committed to ensuring that all refugees, asylum-seekers, stateless and the forcibly displaced can thrive and reach their potential. Through actively promoting the leadership of people with disabilities and their full and meaningful participation in society and in the decisions that affect their lives, a future accessible for all is achievable.
Meet seven refugees with disabilities who are students, advocates, musicians, Paralympic swimmers, volunteers and dedicated employees, challenging misconceptions and showing the world how to create truly inclusive societies.
“[Having a disability] doesn’t define me, what I am, who I am or what I can do,” says Nujeen Mustafa.
Born with cerebral palsy, Nujeen Mustafa became famous after fleeing the conflict in Syria and making the hazardous journey to Europe in her wheelchair. Her defiance and resilience, documented in her memoir The girl from Aleppo has inspired millions. Now a refugee in Germany, Nujeen has her sights fixed on an even brighter future. Alongside attending school and rapidly learning German, she uses her platform to call for positive change, including at TEDxExeter in the United Kingdom and as a guest on the renowned John Oliver show. Her message to the world is one of hope, but also a call to action for everyone to become agents for positive change in their communities. “People don’t realize how hard we’re all trying to rebuild our lives from zero. I’d say to them: Try to get to know us. There’s more inside us and inside you than everyone thinks.”
“Before the war in Syria, I dreamt about participating in the Olympics … After what happened and after my injury, I kept going and now I’m in the Paralympics. I kept my dream,” says Ibrahim Al-Hussein.
After losing the lower part of his right leg to a bomb blast in 2013 in Syria, Ibrahim fled to Turkey where he spent much of the next year learning to walk again before boarding an inflatable boat to Greece, where he resumed competitive swimming. In 2016, Ibrahim made history as part of the first-ever Independent Paralympic Athletes Team of refugee athletes to compete at the Paralympics. He carried the torch for the 2016 Olympic Games through an Athens refugee camp in a symbolic gesture of solidarity with refugees around the world. “I’m really happy and proud to be the flag-bearer. It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had in my life,” Ibrahim said before the ceremony, which was watched by millions of enthusiastic viewers globally.
Necelatte and Jean-Claude, are friends from Burundi where violence forced them to uproot their lives. They have known each other since they attended secondary school together at a special school for children with visual impairment in Rwamagana, in the eastern province of Rwanda. Through UNHCR’s higher education scholarship programme, best known by its acronym DAFI, they are enrolled in university studying journalism and education, respectively.
“People with disabilities, when they are loved and supported, can be very capable. They can make a positive change in their communities and societies,” says Jean-Claude.
Jean-Claude is working to empower people with disabilities and challenge misconceptions. “There are still lots of misconceptions and even sometimes fear regarding persons with disabilities. There is still a lot of awareness work to be done…I want to tell all my fellows with disabilities to stay hopeful. First, we need to accept ourselves; that is the first step. Then we can plan our future and work to achieve our goals,” he says.
“I encourage all people living with disabilities … to accept themselves and to be proud of themselves, ” says Necelatte.
Necelatte is focused on advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities, including those forced from home. “My future will be bright. I have already overcome the biggest obstacles in my life,” she said. “After my studies, I will be a role model and an advocate. I will raise awareness and understanding within the community towards persons with disabilities. I will fight against discrimination.”
“I learned English because I want to see the world. It was very difficult but this was my dream,” says Vlada.
Vlada, who was diagnosed with spina bifida, was internally displaced when her and her family fled fighting in eastern Ukraine. Dedicated to her studies and education, she taught herself English, in addition to learning how to play the piano on her own. Her dream is to one day travel the world. After befriending Sasha, another teenage girl who resides in the same residence for people with disabilities, Vlada was able to find a sense of community and belonging. Inseparable, Vlada plays the piano for Sasha and tries to teach her how to make origami birds out of paper. “When we are together, everything impossible is possible,” says Vlada.
Vlada expressed frustration that she had been unable to attend classes at the local school because it was not accessible for students with disabilities. With support from UNHCR, the buildings are now equipped with ramps. Vlada was able to complete her studies and is enrolled in the Slovyansk Pedagogical Institute, with a specialization in psychology. She wants to become a child psychologist.
“When other refugees see me and what I’m doing…I think it gives them strength and hope and that makes a difference. Even if you change one life, that is more than enough,” says Ahmad.
While walking to his parents’ house in his hometown of Zabadani in Syria, Ahmad, a former construction worker, was struck by a mortar blast and lost both of his legs. After finding refuge in Lebanon, Ahmad volunteers with UNHCR performing outreach in refugee communities. Every morning, with his wife and fellow volunteer Nazmiya, Ahmad sets off from his home on his moped, which he customized himself to be able to ride it with his prosthetic legs, to offer support and assistance to Syrian refugees and Lebanese locals, many of whom have disabilities.
Ahmad credits his work as a refugee volunteer with giving him a new perspective on life — and he hopes to inspire other refugees and persons with disabilities. “I had people who stood by me, young Syrian men with disabilities who held my hand when I lost my legs, so I want to do the same, I want to give back,” he says.
“When I went to my interview at Sierra Nevada and they asked me to start the next day, it was such a good feeling,” says César Jiménez Martínez.
César has been deaf since birth. A Venezuelan refugee in Colombia who fled instability and violence in his home country, he found a job working at a fast food restaurant chain, Sierra Nevada. Discrimination and barriers continue to exist for people with disabilities globally, and overcoming obstacles to meaningful employment can be difficult.
César’s new job allows him to cover the cost of rent for the apartment he lives with his wife and infant son, as well as the family’s expenses. He is even able to occasionally send money home to his mother and other family members who stayed behind in Venezuela. “When I got to Bogotá, I printed out a whole bunch of CVs and started going from company to company, looking for any kind of job. But no one would hire me,” said César in sign language through an interpreter. “So when I went to my interview at Sierra Nevada and they asked me to start the next day, it was such a good feeling.”
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, is a global organization dedicated to saving lives, protecting rights and building a better future for refugees, forcibly displaced communities and stateless people. Learn more about our work with people living with disabilities.