THOUSANDS ARE LOSING THEIR LIMBS IN ASSAD’S WAR -
WHILE HIS WIFE PRETENDS TO CARE ABOUT SYRIA’S DISABLED
Chavia Ali is the 32-year-old chairwoman of the Cultural Forum for People with Special Needs in Syria and the most prominent activist fighting for the rights of the disabled in the Middle East. Attempting to uphold a semblance of basic humanitarian rights under Assad’s rule is risky business. On top of that, to start a civil rights NGO under Assad as a woman of Kurdish descent (which Chavia is) is basically to beg for a life sentence in prison.
Chavia has been wheelchair-bound ever since she suffered from paralytic polio as a baby, but this hasn’t stopped her from bulldozing her way through the impediments presented by the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labor, and constant threats from the secret police as she strives to make life more bearable for Syria’s disabled. She’s received national and international recognition for her work, and after years of thwarting her efforts, Assad’s regime realized a few years ago that it was in their own self-interest to use her good name to improve its image.
In 2010, Chavia’s organization received funding through a trust fronted by Syria’s first lady, Asma al-Assad, with whom Chavia had discussed her plight on several occasions. The novelty of the regime’s slightly more open approach toward civil rights stirred the interest of international media, including the New York Times, who interviewed Chavia about the improbable collaboration. But within a year it became painfully obvious that the entire ordeal had been a dog-and-pony show of empty promises and unfulfilled assurances.
Before April 2011, when Assad’s army opened fire on peaceful protesters and civilians, Syria was home to approximately 2 million people with disabilities. When we spoke to Chavia in October, a few months after she had fled Aleppo for Sweden, she estimated that number could have steadily grown over the course of the civil war.
VICE: How difficult is it for disabled people to live in Syria?
Chavia Ali: People with disabilities are being left behind when buildings are evacuated; those who depend on iron lungs, for example, must rely on spare batteries during frequent power outages. Medicine is hard to come by, and soldiers have no regard for whether or not a person is disabled. My friend Adul is almost completely paralyzed and can only move his head. He wanted to participate in the demonstrations in Aleppo, so he went out onto the street in his electric wheelchair. A policeman hit him in the face, and he fell to the ground. When two women came to help him up, they took Adul and the women to prison and locked them up for a month. They don’t care whether you’re a woman, a child, or in a wheelchair. They’ll kill you if you’re against them.
Even before the conflict, I felt Syria was one of the worst countries to be disabled in. The government knows nothing about accessibility, and disabled people are treated as lesser beings. Instead of working toward including us in society and helping us get an education, we have been made dependent on charity. There are 514 organizations for the disabled in Syria, but none of them deal with disabled people’s rights. They give people bread and sometimes money, but they have no strategies for rights and development. Many people with disabilities in Syria cannot get an education because the government never made schools disability friendly.
Was there a particular incident that drove you to become an activist for the disabled?
I chose to study law at a university in Aleppo that had an elevator, which would enable me to attend lectures and classes. I had such high expectations, but on my first day, when I pressed the elevator button, I realized it was broken. A passerby told me it had been broken for at least ten years. The university staff kept giving me vague excuses [about fixing it], and months passed and nothing happened. Finally, I went to the office of a local politician, a man with enough power to fix my problem in the bat of an eye, and do you know what he told me? He said, “Why do you want to study and have a career in law when you can’t even move around?” I became so depressed I stayed in bed for two months, trying to figure out what to do with my life. Finally, I decided to stop focusing on my problem with this elevator and instead work to confront the problems in this society for people with disabilities. If we achieve democracy, we will finally be able to give more power to people with disabilities, like the right to vote. In the old Syria, we never had any of that.
And this was the impetus for you to establish the first organization in Syria that focuses on the rights of the disabled?
Yes. Unfortunately, to this day I’m still the only person in Syria fighting for disabled people’s rights. For years, my father and the families of people with disabilities—those who believed in our work and wanted to help—funded everything. We’ve tried to change people’s prejudice against the disabled and teach people with disabilities to read and write and use the internet. There’s a law that says more than 4 percent of public jobs should go to people with disabilities, but it’s never been implemented. My dream was to make this law a reality.