“When it takes you two whole days to cross a border, whereas it only takes a matter of hours to arrive in London; that is one meaning of freedom. When you are searched three times between the Palestinian and Israeli border, and don’t get searched once when you’re inside London, that is also freedom. This system [here] is freedom,” says Suleiman, reflecting on his recent journey from Palestine to England.
“Imagine a bird in a cage that has been neglected and left in a weak condition,” he continues. “But when the cage is open, the bird can fly in and out and will get stronger and healthier. The bird will grow and develop, and will bring in new chicks that it would teach how to fly and hunt. Palestine is like this. If we opened the door to it, it would develop.”
Suleiman has come to the UK with Medical Aid for Palestinians (MAP) as part of a delegation to speak about his experience of living under occupation; day-to-day life in the occupied territories is made even harder by the fact that he has a disability. With him are Latifah and Amal; though Latifa and Suleiman had not met Amal before – they are from Gaza and she is from the West Bank – they interact and share their stories passionately and openly.
According to MAP, over 87 per cent of Palestinians with a disability are unemployed and one third of them will never be able to get married. Over one third of Palestinians with a disability have never been to school whilst many do not use public transport as it is not adapted sufficiently. It is these practical barriers which make living with a disability extremely hard under occupation.
For Latifa, the siege on the Strip means that the electricity is cut off often and it is too dangerous for her to continue down the stairs in the darkness, affecting her mobility. Lifts, in the buildings that have them, go in and out of use. She recalls the 2008-2009 war in Gaza which meant people with disabilities were confined to their houses whilst the fighting raged outside. Many lost limbs, their eyesight and hearing from the attacks.
Finding employment is another issue, despite legislation approved in 1999 which promised to grant disabled citizens the right to equal opportunities in society; few achievements have been made in terms of its application.
“We have law 99 that stipulates that the Ministry of Social Affairs is responsible for a person with a disability,” protests Latifa, but “basically, the ministry doesn’t work in accordance with the needs of people with disability or with the international conventions of creating equal opportunities for everyone. The problem is that we are under siege and if people without disabilities are suffering a lot, imagine the level of suffering on the part of people with disabilities.”
Treatment abroad is out of the question because it is too expensive, believes Suleiman, whilst schools often do not treat people with disabilities equally, or have the facilities to teach people with visual or hearing impairments, for example. Many have dropped out as a result and never learn to read and write.
“As for how a person with a disability views himself in light of all of this,” he says, “he might adapt to the circumstances around him, but that doesn’t happen very often. After 20 years of living in his community, he might come to the realisation that he’s different from the rest; he feels weird and strange. One American asked a Palestinian what his wishes in life were. The Palestinian replied: my wish is to get a job and buy a house and a car. The American said, I didn’t ask you about your rights; I asked you what you wish for in life.”
Not only do Palestinians have to suffer from the functional difficulties of living under occupation, but they also have to negotiate the social stigma which comes from within their own communities. Amal describes being a woman in Palestinian society as a form of disability: “Now imagine a woman with a disability, imagine how much of a burden that would be to most families and the society around her who can choose whether or not to accept her.”
Her grandmother wanted Amal to be named after her but, after finding out that her granddaughter had a disability, she refused this. “She didn’t want her name to be associated with the disability or be at the receiving end of the misuse,” Amal says. Meanwhile, her father was in denial when she was growing up, but now it is he who is pushing her to integrate into society.
“I don’t know if he behaves that way because of the guilt he feels or if he wants to compensate for my condition,” she reflects. “He bought me unique toys that were different from the toys other children had, but I wasn’t aware of that difference. It was only later that I understood the reason was to break down barriers between me and other children, so I wouldn’t face them not wanting to sit, play or interact with me. I don’t know, but subconsciously or consciously this helped the way in which I was able to deal with people and the community in the future.”
Since 2009, MAP have worked through the Department for International Development (DFID), in partnership with BirZeit University’s Centre for Developmental Studies, on a scheme to improve the quality of life for Palestinians living with a disability, to become advocates and ask for their rights and promote positive attitudes towards them in the community. Amal, Suleiman and Latifa are currently participating in this project; for Amal doing so has changed her life.
The first workshop she attended was led by someone with a disability. She was shocked, and recognised that she had grown up believing people with disabilities couldn’t do anything, and that this sentiment was reinforced in her. She refused to go back the next day, until eventually her dad persuaded her to return.
“I thought that I had to adapt myself to the environment because I was the problem, not the other way around,” she says. “That was the main thing that I was thinking about when I started the programme. After that I became more aware. I didn’t know what ‘rights’ meant. I considered the word to hold huge significance, so I wrote it on a piece of paper and stuck it on my closet. What does freedom mean? What do rights mean? I couldn’t see beyond the boundaries I had drawn for myself. I couldn’t get out of the confines of my own life. I managed to do so based on my interaction with the community.
“A building can be changed within a year,” she continues, “but changing how a person thinks takes time and work in order for them to become convinced. The whole idea is to see people with disabilities as capable of doing things that are commonly perceived as impossible for them.”