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“The dignity of all people with disabilities must be preserved”

by Anne-Sophie Bauer

The Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation Syria/Iraq Office met with Mousawat Organization in Beirut to learn about the situation of Syrian refugees with disabilities in Lebanon.

The issue of disability among refugees is highly underreported and remains a low priority for most aid agencies, despite the fact that 23% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live with disabilities. Below interview, which the Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation conducted with Program Director Kassem Sabbagh, aims to provide timely political education on the subject.

The issue of disability among refugees is highly underreported and remains a low priority for most aid agencies, despite the fact that 23% of Syrian refugees in Lebanon live with disabilities. Out of those, 30% report that the cause of their impairment is linked to the Syrian conflict (Humanity & Inclusion, 2018). The topic of disability and disability inclusion is thus inherently political, and especially so in regions of conflict. The Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation places great importance on the subject and aims to provide timely political education respectively.

Mr. Sabbagh, please give us a brief overview of the work of Mousawat Organization.

We are a rights-based, non-discriminatory solidarity organization that focuses on providing special care for people with disabilities including Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians or anyone else. We have nine centers in Lebanon and 110 employees. Our approach is to respond first to the most basic needs by offering primary healthcare, physio and speech therapy but also therapy through arts, music and sports.

Please tell us about the situation of Syrian disabled refugees when they arrived in Lebanon. What are the additional challenges they faced when running from war, crossing borders and so forth?

This is a story of 12 years. When more and more refugees started coming, hundreds of aid organizations came to Lebanon. However, there were not many NGOs focusing on disabled people, that was a big problem. Disabled refugees had enormous trouble because they had all these additional requirements. It starts from the health services and medicine they require on a daily basis or the special ways they sleep and so forth, which cannot be provided during flight. After they arrived here, they had to stay in camps that were totally inadequate to meet their special needs. Many of them couldn’t leave their tents for weeks, many of them came without their wheelchairs. So we had to provide them with those basic but often live-saving things first and do so quickly, we couldn’t wait for all the bureaucratic processes.

Also, the moment they started registering refugees, I requested from the UNHCR to include an assessment regarding disabilities in their process. But the UNHCR is like a big dinosaur and people with disabilities fall between the cracks. So they added the disability question only after two years and of course the final percentage they came up with was much too low. Others used the so-called Washington Group Approach, which I don’t approve of. It is a very simplified questionnaire, “can you walk, can you see, can you hear”. So nowadays there is not much detailed, reliable data available. And this is a problem because while we received many requests from advocacy groups or political organizations like yourself, without reliable data you cannot back up your claims and fight for the rights of persons with disabilities.

How is the situation for Syrians with disabilities in Lebanon now and how is the crisis in Lebanon impacting their lives and (possibly) the ability of the center to help them?

You know what’s happening in Lebanon, even Lebanese with disabilities now have nothing at all. There are long waiting lists and some programs already had to be closed because funding from international donors was withdrawn. In the end, it is all political, no donation is innocent and politics and also corruption runs deep into the structures and practices of many organizations. The international community now wants Lebanon to breathe heavily, to put pressure on politicians before providing aid. But this is reflecting strongly on our work. What if we have to close our center in Bekaa, which also assists many Syrian refugees. In general, it is easier for disabled people to move around there than in the city, which provides no infrastructure for disabled people whatsoever. Can you imagine, even when I wanted to go vote in the elections, the ballots were set up on the 5th floor (note: Mr. Sabbagh uses a wheelchair). So I simply couldn’t vote. In Bekaa people can be more active than in the city, but what will happen to them when we have to terminate our services, they are so far from everything.

Given the already difficult relationship between refugees and host community, what are the additional complexities and dynamics for Syrian refugees with disabilities in Lebanon?

We, as an organization, have a non-discriminatory approach. When the Syrian crisis began, there were many donors that came for the Syrians only, but we rejected all of them because our policy is not to say no to anybody based on their nationality. There are many NGOs providing support exclusively for Syrians, but look at what is happening: Lebanese with disabilities are now envying Syrians because they receive certain services due to their refugee status that Lebanese don’t. This is not conflict-sensitive, it creates deeper divides. At the beginning of the Syrian crisis, we wanted to overcome this gap between host community and refugees. Now with the economic crisis, our work everywhere has been destroyed because the Lebanese and Palestinians say “What about us?”. You can imagine it is a very sensitive issue when NGOs with limited resources start asking people “What is your nationality?”. In our opinion, it is a bad practice from the NGOs and it destroys all the work for resilience we did. The international community that wants to support people with disabilities should be aware of this. There is too much division already, even among Lebanese themselves, and these voices are getting louder and louder.

What can be done on a political level to improve their situation in Lebanon?

I want to stress that, above all, it is most important to preserve the dignity of all people with disabilities. In the past, we developed guidelines and a code of conduct on how to treat these people and we trained 2300 government employees on how to approach them, how to measure their disabilities. We also tried to convince them that disability is a cross-cutting issue, it should be everywhere, not just in the ministry of social affairs. I was trying to convince them: “You are not owning this file, it should go out to everyone, the ministry of economics, ministry of transportation.” But they think they own people with disabilities and their funding. We had some laws proposed to improve the situation but it’s just not being implemented. How could it, there is no working government!

But I want to share one story with you in the end, which is very important to me: Once I was at a conference for advocacy, I was asked to prepare a strategic paper on persons with disabilities in Lebanon, amongst others Syrian refugees. I presented my recommendation on how to treat them with dignity. But then, what happened: They brought ten people with impairments from the hospitals and they let them pass on the stage like a circus. I was very furious, shouted at the organizers and left the conference. They were politically using and objectifying people with disabilities for the sake of “advocacy”! After that, we tried to approach them to improve their code of conduct and also for individuals with disabilities to be included in the government but to no avail. You see how hard it is to change their minds or the system, so with the limited resources we have, we are better off spending it on primary care that reaches the people directly.


Anne-Sophie Bauer is a Research Assistant at Konrad-Adenauer-Foundation’s Syria/Iraq Office.

The interview statements represent the ideas and opinions of the interviewee and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung. The Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung does not assume any legal or moral responsibility for inaccurate information or a lack of impartiality of opinions or ideas presented in this interview.