The Most Vulnerable of the Vulnerable

by Muhammad Munshi

“A nation’s greatness is determined by how it treats its weakest members.”

This statement has been attributed to many great people throughout history. It is a universal truth that is no less important in today’s complex world.  Thinking globally, refugees are among the world’s most vulnerable people. The UNHCR estimates that 1 out of every 113 people in the world are currently refugees. Amidst a background of war and dislocation, the lack of a stable home or future exacts enormous mental and physical tolls on the lives of refugee populations. Furthermore, the specific vulnerabilities of refugee children with disabilities and mental health illnesses are exacerbated by barriers that limit their access to education. This often impedes their ability to become independent, integrated members of society.

The conflict and devastation in Syria has created an unparalleled surge of refugees. Since March 2011, there are now over 12.5 million Syrian refugees. This includes 4.8 million refugees that have fled to the neighbouring countries of Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Egypt and Iraq. This also includes 6.6 million refugees who are internally displaced and another 1 million who have found asylum, elsewhere, predominantly in Europe.

The influx of refugees into Lebanon is staggering. Within a country of 4.5 million people, there are an additional 1.1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon registered with the United Nations. The Lebanese government claims there are at least 1.5 million Syrian refugees in the country. Out of more than 500,000 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon, it is estimated that half, at least 250,000, do not even attend school. Human Rights Watch has indicated that Lebanon needs more financial support to fully fund Syrian refugee education, including those with disabilities. Among Syrians who have been displaced or have fled to other countries, the percentage of children with disabilities is disproportionally high, given how many have been injured or profoundly distressed as a result of the conflict.

Syrian refugee children with physical and mental health conditions invariably cannot be accommodated within regular classrooms.  This includes those with physical disabilities which may be related to the conflict or due to underlying conditions such as cerebral palsy. It also includes those with mental, cognitive and intellectual disabilities, often due to Down syndrome or autism.  Mental health support centres in Lebanon are centralized and often not accessible to those living in settlements.  Mental health conditions in Lebanon also remain stigmatized contributing to lack of expertise of parents and teachers that is required to help their children and students. It is therefore necessary to develop support services for Syrian refugee children and their families.

In order to meet these urgent needs, IDRF and Welfare Association are collaborating on a mental health program for Syrian refugee children in Lebanon. This project aims to provide 700 children and at least 700 of their caregivers with ongoing mental health support in the form of psychosocial therapy sessions and support activities, such as music, play, and drama therapy. Other objectives include refurbishing a community-based rehabilitation centre, providing referrals to physical care specialists, conducting support sessions for teachers and school administrators, and supporting home-based care programs for caregivers.

There is no doubt that the needs of the Syrian refugee population are complex. While we must support initiatives to end the conflict and provide basic needs to migrant populations, we must also advocate for the most vulnerable of the vulnerable. By providing assistance to Syrian refugee children with disabilities and their families, we can extend a lifeline of hope to those most in need. Eliminating the barriers to access education and thereby providing much needed mental health support will begin to restore dignity among the weakest members of this vulnerable refugee population.