How we Enter a Room Does Matter

I interviewed a refugee today who is paralyzed from the waist down. She was only about five years old when she was struck with a mysterious fever that robbed her of the ability to walk. Forty years later, she has adapted to her disability but still does not know what caused it or if there is any hope that it may one day be corrected.

She is forced to move around the camp in a wheelchair, which is often
too difficult because of the deep sand that is so pervasive in this desert terrain. Her wheelchair is too wide to make it through the door of my office and so, despite my offers to help lift her, she dismounted and crawled through the doorway. Feeling impotent and a little embarrassed for us both, I looked away.

While I know that disabled people all over the world face challenges that I have little ability to comprehend, I am not entirely unfamiliar with their struggles. When I was in high school, I worked with children who suffered from cerebral palsy, and though I recognize how difficult life was for them, the mere fact that they had a volunteer like me to work out with them in a large swimming pool says a lot about the mechanisms both the kids and their families had available to them to cope with the disability. The kids with whom I worked had wheelchairs, customized physical and educational programs, specialty foods and, in some cases, full-time caretakers.

In Dadaab, on the other hand, there are few programs to help the disabled. Many of the children who suffer from cerebral palsy are so malnourished that I can touch the tips of my forefinger and thumb around their legs without touching their skin, all because the disease has inhibited their ability to swallow and, therefore, they are literally wasting away. Most disabled children in Dadaab are ostracized and even openly mocked by the rest of the community. It is too easy for parents to feel hopeless, exhausted, and even a little ashamed, making life even more difficult for the disabled children.

While the examples I have highlighted above are about paralysis and cerebral palsy, refugees in Dadaab suffer from dozens of other disabilities as well. In the camp’s hostile desert environment, these disabilities create challenges that are difficult to comprehend. While the work in which RefugePoint and many other agencies in the camp are engaged gives me hope, there is no cure in sight – for the disabilities themselves or for the difficulties they create. Even if these families find a way out of Dadaab, they are unlikely to ever be able to afford the programs that the kids with whom I worked in high school had. At least, I hope, they won’t have to crawl through any more doorways.