Free to Be Himself: Taha’s Story
A Young Refugee’s Journey
A 12 year-old boy walks down a street in Gaza, carefully using a walker to help him step over rocks as he heads to meet up with his friends. He exudes an easy confidence and determination, fueled by the newfound independence his walker provides. Just a few years ago, Taha, a young Palestinian refugee, would have been unable to leave his home, stuck in a wheelchair that couldn’t navigate the torn-up streets without help. But now, he makes his own way to meet up with his friends – their games a welcome reprieve from the most recent round of conflict that wracked Gaza.
Taha was born with spina bifida, a spinal condition that left him with limited mobility. Gaza has limited medical facilities, and while they could help him avoid the worst consequences of the condition, he needed a wheelchair for mobility. It’s hard enough to get around in a typical city using a mobility device, but air strikes and sanctions mean that Gaza’s crumbling infrastructure is almost completely inaccessible to people using wheelchairs.
About 2.1% of Gaza’s population has a disability, with the most common kind being impaired mobility of some sort. For refugee children like Taha, a lack of mobility means social isolation and exclusion from education. That leads to lower self-confidence, feelings of helplessness, and worse mental health. These combine with the already high mental and emotional risks that all refugee children face, making refugee children with disabilities some of the most marginalized children on earth.
"I feel free. I can walk, play, and go to school. I can do whatever I want." - Taha, 12
Stuck and Feeling Helpless
Taha knows how it feels to face down these challenges. His parents encouraged him to go to school when he was younger, but by the time he was 10, his motivation to keep on going was flagging. The difficulty of maneuvering a wheelchair through the ruined streets meant that he needed his parents’ help to get to school, and at the end of the day he was stuck waiting for someone to come and help him home while the other children ran off to play.
Worse yet, he was being bullied for being different, which crushed what little motivation he could muster to keep on going. Taha prized his independence because it seemed like everything around him was trying to take it away, and at the first chance he got, he made the decision to stop going to school.
Between 10 and 11, Taha underwent numerous surgeries to treat his condition. He took the chance to stop going to school entirely, and rarely left his home except to go to clinics and hospitals for treatment. The surgeries were going well, but Taha’s mental state was declining as his isolation deepened and his sense of helplessness increased.
Healing Body and Mind
Recovering from surgery was going to be a challenge, but the mental wounds of his enforced helplessness were going to be the hardest thing to treat. Taha began physiotherapy with one of Right To Play’s local partners in Gaza, and it was his physiotherapist who convinced him to attend a play session.
Right To Play empowers children with disabilities in Gaza through the “Enhancing Quality and Inclusive Education” (EQIE) program. For children like Taha, the program provides opportunities that build their physical capabilities, strengthen their ability to cope with feelings of helplessness, and help them access education. The core of program combines psychosocial support with active learning using the power of play.
"I want to keep moving. I can play with my friends without obstacles, and I can go up and down the stairs, and that's something I have never done before." Taha, 12
For Taha, this meant using games and exercises to aid his physiotherapy and build his confidence and agency. He learned how to move with a walker, giving him a newfound independence. “I feel free. I can walk, play, and go to school. I can do whatever I want,” he says about how his walker makes him feel.
The same confidence boost that helped him through the difficult process of learning to walk empowered him to go back to school. With the support of the EQIE program, he dove into his studies and became excited about school for the first time. Where once he had dreaded having to ask his mother or father to push his wheelchair over and around obstacles in the streets, now he could make the journey himself.
"I am very happy my son gained his confidence back... You can't imagine his happiness after being enrolled in school and doing things on his own." – Mahmmoud, Taha's father
Going back to school also meant making new friends. Taha had felt excluded because of his difference, but his new belief in his own self-worth and value meant that he was eager to speak up and talk to the other children in his neighbourhood. He quickly made some friends, and where once he feared to leave his house, he’s eager to go out and see them whenever he can.
Taha’s new independence has one other important aspect. Gaza remains periodically subject to violent conflict between Israel and HAMAS. Impaired mobility makes it particularly hard to evacuate to shelter through the chaos of air strikes and artillery shells. When families are fleeing their homes, it’s all too easy to leave a wheelchair behind in the scramble for safety. But with Taha’s control of his walker and ability to move on his own, his risk of not making it to a shelter in time or being trapped immobile for days while conflict goes on is drastically lower.
Refugee children with disabilities like Taha face some of the greatest challenges any child will ever face. But Taha is refusing to give up in the face of those challenges. He is confident, independent, and excited for the future for the first time in his life.
“I want to keep moving. I can play with my friends without obstacles, and I can go up and down the stairs, and that something I have never done before,” he says, excited by what the future holds for him.