Rohingya refugee children with disabilities shine with HI support
“By observing other children playing and by doing stimulation exercises, Zesmin has finally learnt to call us father and mother.” Zesmin’s parents, Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh, witnessed their daughter, a girl with Down syndrome who had difficulties moving and communicating, turn into a happy, energetic toddler. “We meticulously followed Humanity & Inclusion’s (HI) advice. With wonderful results.”
Zesmin, born with down syndrome, wasn’t able to walk, she crawled around the house on hands and knees. | © Nicolas Axelrod-Ruom /HI
Every two weeks, Murad, rehabilitation officer for HI, makes his way through the densely inhabited Kutupalong refugee camp (Bangladesh). It’s one of the biggest in the world, hosting half a million Rohingya people who have fled ethnic violence in Myanmar. A dusty, cramped path leads to the two roomed bamboo shelter house, where Zesmin lives with her parents and her four older sisters. As always, Murad and his colleague, a volunteer community worker who follows up on the family on almost a daily basis, are welcomed with joy and laughter. Zesmin, dressed in a golden glitter dress, takes her father’s phone, listens to the music and starts dancing happily. As if she wants to show off and demonstrate to Murad how much she has improved. And those improvements are indeed impressive.
The 3-years old Zesmin suffers from Down syndrome, which her father Younus calls a brain disease. “Before we were identified by HI, Zesmin was unable to do anything. She didn’t communicate, she couldn’t hold anything in her hands, she just lied down all day. We didn’t know how to help her.”
Walking device and information cards
Zesmin’s life changed completely though, soon after she and her family were included in HI’s Growing Together program. This project supports displaced and vulnerable children aged 0 to 12 in Thailand, Pakistan and Bangladesh with a strong focus on child development. “We have shown Zesmin’s parents how to stimulate using specific exercises and how to implement this knowledge in daily life”, explains Murad, HI’s rehabilitation officer. “We use information cards with images and simple descriptions. They are adapted to the children’s age, needs and possible impairments of every child." This approach helped Zesmin learn how to sit and to hold little objects in her hands, so she can now eat on her own.
With HI’s support, Younus installed a bamboo bar around the house for his daughter. “But she doesn’t need it any longer”, he smiles. “She can stand up independently and she explores the house with the walking device we received from HI.” The family was also given some books and toys. “We focus a lot on play”, says Murad. “Play positively influences the child’s physical, cognitive, communication and social-emotional development.”
Inclusion of children … and mothers
In addition to the home visits and individual trainings that HI organizes, also twenty-one parents’ clubs were set up in the camp, in order to improve the parents’ understanding and practices of early childhood development and to raise their awareness on the importance of inclusive play. Each parents club has an average of fifteen members and promotes the participation of mothers of children with disabilities.
“Nowadays, the neighbour’s children often come by to play with Zesmin. The community workers of HI have done a lot to make the stigma disappear.” (Halima, Zesmin’s mother)
At first, Zesmin’s mother Halima, was a bit reluctant to go to the club. Having a child with a disability, she had always been excluded by the community. “Disabilities are often considered a curse”, says Murad. “Or people tend to think it’s a punishment for the parents for having done something wrong. Therefore, the inclusive aspect of the club is not only important for the children; but is as vital for the parents.”
“Now, I don’t miss a single meeting anymore”, Halima says. “I talk to the other mothers, we share our problems and we laugh a lot, while we keep working with the information cards. We also receive extra information on our children’s development, through different activities such as group discussions and role plays. And we learn how to make toys!” She proudly shows a couple of cuddly toys she made with some scrap fabric.
And she’s not the only one looking forward to the club meetings. “Zesmin truly likes it, because she really has the chance there to play with other children her own age. That was never the case before, when nobody wanted to be around her because of her disability. Nowadays, the neighbour’s children often come by to play with Zesmin. The HI community workers have done a lot to make the stigma disappear, which is a big relief. I’ve noticed how important it is for her to play with other children. By imitating them she has finally, after three years, learnt how to call us father and mother. This was a big moment.”