Ali spends most of his time in front of the TV. His mother asks him to go out, but he refuses.
“None of the neighborhood boys notice me,” the 15 year-old yells.
Ali, who was born blind, cannot see the TV, but he takes comfort in its sound. The blind child considers it his only friend.
Ali has been stuck inside since all the organizations for the disabled in Raqqa shut down following the armed opposition’s takeover of the city on March 4, 2013. For now, the organizations that provided education and tended to the needs of the deaf, mute, and blind no longer function.
Prior to the uprising, seven per cent of Syria’s population was disabled and required special care, according to Yasser Najjar, the vice president of the Union of Non-Governmental Organizations in Syria.
“The percentage has now increased exponentially,” he explains, due to the increasing number of Syrians who have been permanently disabled by the injuries received during the past two years of violence and war.
Local activists and officials give a variety of reasons for why all the organizations that assist disabled people have closed.
Yousef al-Shaykhan, head of the Charitable Society for the Care of the Blind, blames lack of funding for the closures, since they all depend on private funding, except for the Institute for the Hearing Impaired, which falls under the umbrella of the Ministry of Social Affairs.
“They are civil organizations that depend first and foremost on donations,” he added.
The Institute for the Hearing Impaired’s building, along with other government buildings, was taken over by the Nasser Salaheddin Brigade of the FSA when the city fell. Abu Mohammad al-Namshy, the unit’s commander, says that when “the administration decides to return” his troops will evacuate the building as well as offer the organization “financial support, and protection.”
Al-Namshy said his group presented this proposal to the organization’s administration previously. Damascus Bureau was unable to contact a member of the administration since the president and his staff went to Damascus after the fall of the city to the opposition.
Taha al-Sayed Taha, the head of the local council, is working to re-open the organisations for the disabled.
“It has to be according to the principles of health and public safety and services,” he said.
But weeks have passed since the committee began this work and nothing has materialised. The local council has so far failed to retrieve buses that belong to some of the institutions and were taken over by armed opposition groups. It managed, however, to return a Braille printer that was stored at the Cultural Centre, which is under the control of the Islamic Movement of the Freemen of the Levant.
The relief organization Charity of the Sons of Rasheed announced its readiness to re-activate the Organization of Hope for the Hearing Impaired on condition that it is renamed the Rasheed School for the Hearing Impaired, according to its head Mazen al-Sha’ayb.
“I communicated with the Organization of Hope and we agreed on re-launching the organization after changing its name. But we still need some time,” he said.
Later, however, the Organization of Hope’s secretary Nadwa al-Salloum told the Damascus Bureau that its administration of the organization eventually refused to change its name, without providing further details. The institution remains closed.
The closure of organizations for the disabled did not lead to cutting off communication between students and their teachers.
“Even after the organization shut down, I still communicate with most of my students through visits and by phone,” said Khadija as she held the hand of Saada, a blind 19-year-old student.
Ali, the blind teenager, passed the ninth grade easily this year after having completed official examinations given by the Union of Free Teachers, despite being cut off from school for months.
“This is proof of his improvement through the organization,” said one of his teachers.
Ali’s 34-year-old brother, Hassan, was also born blind, and teaches Arabic.
“He plays an integral role in his brother’s life, making things easier on him,” Ali’s teacher said. “He is also a good role model as a person who has overcome his disability and successfully integrated into society.”
In addition to schooling, organizations for the disabled offered entertainment activities for their students such as theatre and computer lessons.
“These activities help them overcome their disability,” said Khadija, 28, a teacher at the Organization for the Blind.
Nizar al-Ahmad, a sculptor who volunteered at the organization, introduced the technique of “seeing for the blind.”
“The technique takes the blind out of the darkness in which they live, and teaches them to depend on themselves more,” he explained.
He notes that “seeing for the blind” is a European idea where students create shapes out of clay, with teachers intervening only to select colors.
Saada, the blind 19-year-old student, received her Baccalaureate (high school) degree despite joining the organization late. Every day, Saada reads some of her Braille books and papers to remember some of the “beautiful moments” at school.
Saada’s sister is also blind. She reacted badly to the closure of the organizations and has isolated herself and not spoken much since.
Disabled individuals improve their skills through honing their other senses, and the social nature of schooling helps to achieve this, according to their teachers.
“The home cannot take the place of the institute even if the family is open and aware,” said psychiatrist Dr. Jamal al-Hammoud.
Hammoud was in the process of opening an institute for autism when the opposition took over the city. The absence of personnel and a lack of communication with the Ministry of Social Affairs forced him to put his plan on hold.
Ali may be less social after the closure of the Organization for the Blind, but he’s lucky – many of his peers do not have a brother to support them as he does.