Amid conflict and chaos in northern Syria, The Forgotten Individuals in Northern Syria – People with Disabilities webinar, facilitated by Dr Munzer Alkhalil, shed light on the often-overlooked struggles faced by individuals with disabilities. With 59 attendees, the webinar provided a platform for experts, advocates, and those directly impacted by the conflict to share their stories and discuss the challenges and aspirations of the disabled community.

The first speaker Mr. Hamdo Salat, born with polio, is Head of Disability Department at the Idlib Health Directorate (IHD) and a world champion in weightlifting. He highlighted the significant challenges faced by people with disabilities in northern Syria due to ongoing conflict and compound crises. He emphasised the increasing prevalence of disabilities resulting from the conflict and natural disasters such as the Turkey/Syria earthquake in 2023. Mr. Salat outlined efforts by the IHD to support people with disabilities, including the establishment of a dedicated department and initiatives to improve accessibility to essential services. For example, the creation of a specialised card to facilitate access to essential services. He also noted the establishment of a database for people with disabilities by the IHD. Mr. Salat called for collaborative efforts to address the escalating challenges faced by individuals with disabilities in the region.

Among the speakers was Ms. Dimaa Aktaa, a resilient survivor who lost her leg when her home was bombed in Idlib. She is a Syrian athlete who was named on the BBC’s 100 Most Influential Women in the World list in 2022. Despite facing immense adversity, Ms. Aktaa’s journey is one of inspiration and determination. It took her six years to acquire a prosthetic leg, during which she encountered societal prejudices and barriers. She spoke of the need to change perceptions surrounding disabilities, emphasising that individuals should not be defined by their physical limitations but rather by their inner strengths and capabilities. Ms. Aktaa’s relocation to the UK empowered her to challenge societal norms and advocate for inclusivity and acceptance in Syria.

Ms. Mariam Abdulrazak Drobah, born blind, shared her remarkable educational journey, highlighting the challenges faced by visually impaired individuals in accessing essential tools and support. Despite these obstacles, Ms. Drobah’s resilience and determination enabled her to pursue higher education and express herself through poetry. She highlighted the importance of community support in overcoming barriers and called for greater accessibility and inclusivity for the disabled.

Dr. Zuhair Al-Qarrat, Head of IHD, addressed the systemic challenges faced by people with disabilities, including barriers to employment, education, and healthcare. He stressed the need for collaborative efforts to ensure equal rights and opportunities for all individuals, regardless of disability. Dr. Al-Qarrat outlined IHD’s initiatives, including the establishment of a department dedicated to people with disabilities and the distribution of mobile aids to enhance accessibility.

Dr. Anas Satof, the Health and Nutrition Facilitator at World Vision International, emphasised the crucial contributions of NGOs in meeting the unique requirements of individuals with disabilities. He advocated for integrating these specific needs into all ongoing projects, underscoring the necessity of implementing targeted policies, particularly during the early recovery phase in Syria.

The webinar highlighted the urgent need for comprehensive support systems and inclusive policies to address the diverse needs of people with disabilities in northern Syria. It served as a reminder that disabilities should not be viewed as limitations but rather as unique gifts that contribute to the richness and diversity of society. By amplifying the voices of individuals like Hamdo, Dimaa and Mariam and advocating for systemic change, we can strive towards a more inclusive and equitable future for all.