In humanitarian aid, we use categories of vulnerability to make sure that we always reach those who need support more than others but might get overlooked too quickly. Unaccompanied minors, pregnant and lactating women, persons with disabilities– these groups are often hit hardest by disasters and least able to help themselves.
As a child in the Dadaab refugee camps in Kenya, 80 kilometers from the border to Somalia, one has surely seen the worst in life: poverty, flight, hunger, a bleak future. Here in Juba Primary School on this hot morning, boys and girls are running around in their plastic sandals, their clothes worn out and dirty, their voices forming a noisy choir in the dusty air. But what about those who cannot run around? Who cannot see or hear, children we call impaired? How do they cope with the struggles of being a refugee child?
Yet a few of them are here, sitting in a classroom: a mentally challenged young man in his early 20’s, seven boys and girls with a visual impairment, an autistic youth, a girl in a wheelchair. CARE manages seven schools in Dagahaley camp, one of several camps that make up Dadaab, home to almost 370,000 refugees. All of the schools offer special education for children and youth with impairments. Most of these 494 boys and girls attend regular classes but for those with severe needs, CARE has set up separate classrooms in two of the schools and employs special needs teachers who guide them.
Samuel Odawo is 34 years old and has started working as a teacher with CARE in the summer of 2013. The Kenyan has been visually impaired since birth himself but was lucky to receive an education in his village. “I want to give children the same chance I had”, he says. “Although it has been tough to explain to my fiancé why I would resettle to a refugee camp hundreds of kilometers away from our home”, he tells with a chuckle, “We were planning to get married!” Samuel turns serious quickly again when talking about the challenges of his job: “Most of these kids are being hidden by their families, so we literally have to go from door to door and encourage their parents to send the kids to school. Sometimes, we are successful but sometimes children only show up a few times and then disappear again.” Samuel himself is a role model, showing parents and children alike that visual impairment is nothing to be ashamed of and that there are ways to navigate even in this difficult environment.
During the mid-morning break, Ismail Omar pays a visit to the special needs classroom. He is eleven years old and sits in a wheelchair. Ismail attends the regular classes because he can keep up very well with the other students. The little boy has such a wide grin that it spans from one cheek to the other: “I like school”, he says. What he doesn’t like is the daily routine of getting there. His wheelchair is being pushed by his 15-year-old sister, but they get teased by other youngsters on their way. “Sometimes the other kids also throw stones at me”, he says. Luckily, there is another Ismail, his best friend, to help him get around in school. Ismail has lived in Dadaab since 2006. Back then, his family had to walk on foot for ten days because their car had broken down somewhere in the middle of nowhere between Somalia and Kenya. Ismail was carried on the shoulders of a relative; he has been paralyzed since early childhood. A polio vaccination would have saved him, but these were hard to get where he grew up. Somalia has known conflict, recurring drought and chronic poverty for many decades and thus, thousands of families see no option than to leave and become refugees in neighboring Kenya.
“My favorite subjects are English and Math,” Ismail says with his eyes reflecting all the wit and courage of his personality. Only the doorstep of his classroom poses a challenge, but that is what friends are for, right? His namesake is there to push the wheelchair over this barrier. And what does Ismail want to do when he grows up? Is it appropriate to ask this question, here, in the refugee camp, where a little boy in a wheelchair faces nothing but obstacles? “I want to become an officer in a big office!” There comes the grin again. And off they go, with his friend Ismail pushing the wheelchair out into the school yard. Other boys join them, and they blend into the crowd of children and chatter. Yes, the dream of a big office is a far-fetched one for Ismail. But it is his dream, and it exists. For now, this is all that matters.