International Day of Persons with Disabilities: A celebration in a refugee camp

Did you know that more than one billion people or approximately 15% of the world’s population live with some form of disability? According to data by the United Nations, of the one billion people with disabilities, 80% live in developing countries.

The first annual celebration of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) on December 3 was proclaimed in 1992 by the United Nations. The IDPD aims to raise awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in socioeconomic, cultural and political aspects, and to promote inclusion on every level of society. Ethiopia marked the inaugural celebration of IDPD in 2014.

Last year I had the privilege of celebrating this special day in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, Gambella region. Gambella hosts nearly 350,000 refugees living in seven camps, with more arriving each day from South Sudan. They have fled their homes in the hopes of finding a safer place for their families to start a new life and escape the escalating violence in their home country. Most of the refugee families have lost a loved one and have experienced physical as well as psychological trauma.

Since August I had been working in a rehabilitation center in Tierkidi camp, which is the second oldest camp.  As a Physical Therapist, the majority of my role involves facilitating the physical rehabilitation process. However, my contribution in raising awareness about the rights of people with disabilities among the community, to ensure equal participation and provide psychosocial support to people with disabilities and their families, is also essential. Additionally, community support groups create social connections and promote peer-to-peer support.

I conduct regular counselling sessions within my physical therapy sessions for mothers of children with disabilities. I educate them about complication prevention methods; how they can increase the functional independence of their children; and to ask if there is anything in particular they want to discuss with me. Most frequently they mention difficulties of having to leave everything they owned behind with just the clothes on their backs, having uprooted themselves and their families from the places they were born and raised. Subsequently, they depend almost entirely on humanitarian aid from various organizations that provide necessities such as food, shelter, and healthcare. 

The theme for IDPD in 2021 was “Leadership and Participation of Persons with Disabilities toward an Inclusive, Accessible and Sustainable Post-COVID-19 World.” It symbolized the actions that we should all take to foster a diverse, inclusive and accessible environment during the Covid-19 pandemic. The global crisis has affected the normal routines of people around the world. Some people have been experiencing loneliness and isolation. These factors coupled with reduced routine health care and rehabilitation services are thought to increase the risk of marginalization and discrimination of people with disabilities.

The IDPD 2021 events prepared were entertaining and educational. We kicked off the celebration with an inclusive cultural dance. It was mesmerizing to watch everyone dance with a big smile on their faces.  Afterwards, community leaders, different professionals from multiple humanitarian organizations, and elders of the community gave speeches to show their support.

One of the talented people who performed during the celebration was Thangkol, an 18 year old young man with Cerebral Palsy. He played the drums for the singers of the Ngundeng church (Ngundeng is a cultural religion among the society). They sang, rhythmically swaying their hands from side to side, while dressed in matching cultural outfits. Thangkol’s joyful expression as he played made me sentimental. I thought about how we are all looking to find our individual gifts that make us unique and an integral part of a larger community at the same time.

The highlight of the IDPD 2021 was a speech given by a woman named Nyalel Deng, a 26 year old  with a physical disability. She started with an introduction and went on to explain “I am a mother, a student, a friend and also someone with a disability”. She mentioned different challenges she has faced and continued to face due to not only her impairment, but also a  lack of accessibility. She wrapped up her speech by saying “on this day I would love to appreciate how far I have come even though I still face challenges. I am now in the 12th grade and I hope to go to college to become a nurse. I am happy and proud to say that I am so much more than just my disability, I am an integral part of society with a bright future”.

So let’s all join hands to recognize, understand and respect everyone’s differences and strive towards an inclusive world.

Hello, my name is Eden Andom. I am a junior physiotherapist  who is interested in the concept of Global health. I am currently working in an organisation providing early intervention programs for children with disability in Addis Ababa. I like travelling and writing about my experiences and I have so much to still discover.