Shadi al-Assad is a 31-year-old with an infectious smile. A biology graduate with a passion for the English language, he used to be married, with a one-year-old son and good job with DHL. “I used to be a warehouse manager,” he types on his phone. He types this because two years ago Shadi’s life was turned upside down when he was diagnosed with cerebral hydrocephalus. The condition impacts both his motor and speech skills and now he communicates with others through messages on his mobile phone.
“Luckily, he keeps improving,” says his mother Dina Bushnaq, 57 years-old. The conversations they used to have are no longer possible. Shadi struggles to formulate words. His smartphone, hooked to his finger thanks to a phone case, has become his lifeline. This is the only way he can communicate with the outside world. It enables Shadi to interact with the people around him and gives him the freedom to go online. He loves to read, mostly the news. He also uses Skype to chat with two of his brothers who fled Syria for Europe.
Adjusting has been hard, admits Dina. “Coping is an ongoing process. It is exhausting and stressful but life has to go on,” she says. With her two other sons overseas and her husband deceased, it is just her and Shadi now. Shadi’s wife filed for divorce when he became disabled and left for Turkey with their son. “He is now three-years-old,” Shadi says, holding up three fingers, and then wiping away a tear.
The conflict in Syria, too, has impacted their lives. They live in Harasta, an area which has seen fighting. Although their house has not been damaged, ongoing military operations have limited their freedom of movement. Even going for a walk, pushing Shadi in his wheelchair, was dangerous. “I haven’t really been able to take him outside for the past few years because of the mortars,” Dina notes.
Dina is the family’s main breadwinner, working as a primary school teacher. Shadi receives a small pension, but his primary income is cash assistance provided by UNRWA. Their income is spent covering the basic costs of living, including electricity and water, in addition to Shadi’s numerous medicines. UNRWA cash assistance also allows Shadi to purchase phone credit, enabling him to access the internet, providing him access to a place where his disability does not exist.
Assistance to the most vulnerable Palestine refugees, including persons with disabilities, is provided with generous support from donors like the European Union. The European Commission's civil protection and humanitarian aid department (ECHO) has funded assistance to those with disabilities, as well as female-headed households, like Dina’s.
UNRWA assists more than 2,300 Palestine refugees with disabilities in Syria and more than 13,143 Palestine refugees in total across all five fields of operation. The Agency offers rehabilitation activities, such as physical therapy, access to education, as well as recreational and psychosocial support activities.
These services, along with cash assistance, have made coping with difficult circumstances a little easier. Dina is determined to be strong for her son. “We have to overcome these challenges and difficult circumstances,” she says.
Photo caption: Shadi and his mother Dina are supported by UNRWA cash assistance. In his lap, the smartphone that has become his lifeline to the outside world. © 2018 UNRWA Photo by Fernande van Tets