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Lives of the Forgotten Refugees: Tahir’s Story

Who We Are

Who we are: Ethar Relief is a UK-registered charity established to help refugees, displaced and disadvantaged people in the Horn of Africa. It was set up more than a decade ago by former refugees from Eritrea who were liberated from refugee camps in East Sudan. Today, in addition to providing aid and a comprehensive programme of development projects, Ethar Relief strives to raise awareness of refugees in the region, who are considered to have been forgotten by the international community. The UN Refugee Agency says that international aid for the vast number of refugees fleeing conflict in the region is inadequate, and much more needs to be done to avert the ongoing humanitarian crisis in East Africa. [1]

Who is Tahir?

Tahir Salih Idrees was born in the Umm Gharghour refugee camp in East Sudan. If that was not already a difficult start to life, he was born with severe physical disabilities, including loss of movement in both legs. Disability amongst children born within the refugee camp environment is very high, due to the incredibly poor healthcare facilities and nutritional support available to pregnant mothers and new-born children. Still, given the high infant mortality rate, most refugee parents are grateful that their children survive at all. Tahir’s disabilities could possibly have been less severe if there had been some early medical intervention in his formative years, but this was impossible within a refugee camp where basic healthcare access is so low. As a result of his postpartum complications, and in addition to neither of his legs functioning, one of his legs had to be amputated below the knee.

The Dangers

With a physically impairing disability, and already disadvantaged by the incredibly hostile refugee camp environment, Tahir was in the most vulnerable situation for a child. The dangers to all inhabitants of the refugee camps are well known, but children, especially disabled children, are in the most danger and difficulty. [2] They are vulnerable to diseases that ravaged camps bring, causing them to die suddenly whilst their parents can only look on, unable to access even the simplest kinds of medicine or assistance. They are vulnerable to natural disasters, and cannot make long journeys to move out of danger zones when floods and droughts occur. Amongst the refugee population, they are the most severely affected by famine and food shortages, as they cannot easily access food aid caravans or passing aid convoys. Most worryingly, children like Tahir are vulnerable to exploitation, safety and security risks – criminals can use their disabilities to exploit them and their families in a number of ways, thus becoming hostages to their disability or condition. [3]

A Promising Young Boy

We met Tahir when he was six years old. Immediately, we were struck by his bright nature, cheerful positivity, and his optimistic outlook. To him, his disability was not a barrier to living his life. Tahir’s family were occupying a rough shack that contained absolutely nothing – not even a bed to sleep on. The entire family were sitting, living, and sleeping on the hard ground. The facilities that might be needed to support a family with a disabled child were a distant dream and almost unimaginable. Tahir’s parents were not even aware of what kind of support he might need because he had never been assessed or diagnosed, meaning that he had not accessed any sophisticated healthcare facility. In the context of the refugee camp and the scarcity of resources, minor ailments and disabilities can become very greatly exacerbated, leading to extreme impairment of function and even loss of life. These risks were known to Tahir’s family, but they were powerless to act upon this knowledge. Despite this, Tahir himself remained resolute and positive, and his family were also determined to give him the best possible opportunities that they could provide.

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A Mother’s Struggle

In the face of the most severe challenges, Tahir’s mother decided to take matters into her own hands and make an effort to provide him with a normal, healthy life experience. Every day, for instance, she got him ready in the morning and they made the very long journey in the heat to attend a nursery and primary school opened by Ethar Relief. Due to the lack of transport facilities, her only option was to carry him there and back in her arms. Tahir was the first disabled child from Umm Gharghour refugee camp to be able to access education in this way, thanks to the incredible efforts of his mother to help him get there and assist him in his activities. Her sacrifice for her child has been huge: she waits for him to complete his school day so that they could then make the long journey back home every day, in all conditions.

I am Tahir

Due to Tahir’s enthusiasm for school and the example he and his family set, other disabled children also started attending school and finding ways to overcome their challenges. With the help of his teacher, he composed a poem about himself called Anā Ṭāhir (I am Tahir).

Its opening lines read:

            I am Tahir, and I’m not disabled – I’m bright!

            I am a talented, promising child…

In response, Tahir’s teacher also wrote a poem to him, encouraging him to keep attending school despite his difficulties, and to never give up on his goals. Both these poems were performed at the presentation day held by Tahir’s school, attended by Ethar Relief’s Director of Programmes, Mr Saeed AbdelRahman.

Things can get Better

Ethar Relief was able to help Tahir and other children like him to improve their home life and facilities, in order to remove some of the challenges that normally prevent them from attending school and leading a normal life. For example, Tahir now has a proper bed with a mattress at home, and a wheelchair to travel to school in. His journey time to school has been vastly reduced, and Ethar Relief has also supported his school to provide more adapted facilities and learning opportunities for children like Tahir.

In addition to this, Ethar Relief supports Tahir’s amazing mother to provide the family with nutritious meals, so that he is not further exposed to disease and injury. She is now a local advocate for disabled children’s schooling, and invites other mothers to access support and send their children to school. Ethar Relief is also in the process of arranging for Tahir’s disability to be properly assessed and diagnosed in hospital, so that going forward he can get any treatment he needs and make sure he does not lose any further physical functions.

Awareness, Access, and Tolerance

There is a beautiful trust built up between Ethar Relief and the refugee community. They know that if a vulnerable, disabled child attends an Ethar school, that child will be educated and looked after properly. Ethar Relief trains all its staff and teachers to foster inclusion and tolerance within the classroom environment so that we not only invest in their academic education, but also in the long-term cohesion of the next generation as a community growing up together.

Tahir’s teacher informs us that even when he has to sit out of certain types of games in the school yard, he smiles, laughs, claps, and enjoys seeing the children play. Accordingly, his many friends try and find ways that he can join in, or try to invent a role for him to play in the games. It is crucial to all children that they get the opportunity to play and interact with their peers. Disabled children can find life in the refugee camp very isolating and lonely. It is not uncommon for disabled children to grow up with other severe difficulties, including mental health issues or behavioural issues, due to the lack of communication and regular interaction they develop over the years. [4]

Tahir’s Future

You cannot help but be inspired by Tahir’s story. Every year, Ethar Relief opens more nurseries, schools, and training centres for children and young people in refugee camps. These are coupled with awareness campaigns and home visits to refugees to tell them about the benefits of schooling and education, for all children inclusively. The uptake of such opportunities by the refugees is phenomenal, and there is a measurable positive effect that we observe when we revisit the communities after a while. Sometimes, the solution to keep children in school is as simple as providing lunch for them on the premises so that they do not have to go foraging for food all afternoon. There is a lot more work to do and there are thousands of children who would benefit from such facilities, so we will keep working hard with the help of our generous supporters. Children like Tahir may have had a challenging start, but we can try to give them a better future.

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Source: www.islam21c.com


[1] https://www.unhcr.org/sudan.html [accessed 1st July 2019]

[2] https://www.nrc.no/shorthand/fr/2019-will-be-another-year-of-crises/index.html [accessed 1st July 2019]

[3] https://news.un.org/en/story/2013/01/430612-refugees-disappearing-eastern-sudan-may-be-trafficking-victims-un-agency [accessed 1st July 2019]

[4] https://reliefweb.int/report/jordan/removing-barriers-path-towards-inclusive-access-disability-assessment-among-syrian [accessed 1st July 2019]

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