Laughter and excited chatter burst out of the colourfully painted classrooms. In a quiet garden schoolhouse amid the jam-packed Afghan capital, Kabul, pupils run around, study and play in the country’s first official school for children with disabilities.
It’s a far cry from what most of these children have previously experienced. For many, it’s the first time in their lives they feel loved and accepted.
Afghanistan has one of the world’s largest proportions of people living with disabilities, according to a report from Human Rights Watch, but few services meet their needs.
More than 17% of Afghan children have a mild, moderate or severe disability, but stigma and resistance from schools to accept them means most have not been able to receive an education, according to the Asia Foundation. Children with the most severe difficulties are often neglected at home or left abandoned and uncared for.
Fatima Khalil school opened its doors in December and is now offering a safe environment for children who routinely face rejection. The tuition-free institute hopes to normalise special needs in the war-torn country, where almost 80% of adults have some form of impairment.
Each classroom is decorated with children’s paintings and filled with toys, schoolbooks and soft carpets. Children who live with all kinds of disabilities are placed in a grade depending on their level of ability and the amount of support they need.
The idea for the school was born out of tragedy: Fatima Khalil, a 24-year-old human rights defender, was assassinated by the Taliban in Kabul last June. Khalil had previously volunteered with the Enabled Children Initiative (ECI), a local charity working with children who live with disabilities.
Lael Mohib, ECI’s founder who now volunteers full-time for the organisation as director, says that in Afghanistan the biggest challenges for children with disabilities are stigma, shame and societal misunderstanding.
“When we establish such barricades, we close the door to opportunities in terms of creating programming and resources,” she says. “When most people think of disability, they think of inability, and that’s the root of many challenges people with disabilities face.”
After Khalil’s death, her family created a fund and partnered with ECI to set up the school, striving to fulfil Fatima’s dream.
“We currently have 34 students, but would like to expand to 50 by the end of the year,” says the school’s deputy administrator, Asya Ahmad, one of Khalil’s sisters. She says once word spread, applications soared. Fourteen of the pupils live in orphanages, after being left at hospitals or in cardboard boxes outside police stations shortly after they were born.
“Afghanistan’s school system is currently not prepared to include special-needs students,” says Ahmad. “We aim to eventually integrate some of our students into mainstream schools and hope to develop partnerships that encourage a more inclusive learning environment.”
Another issue that makes formal school attendance more difficult is that many children with disabilities are not registered with the authorities, often due to their families’ neglect or even shame of acquiring a tazkira, a national identification card, for them. This means they do not formally exist and so cannot obtain government services.
While such identification might be mandatory at some public schools, it is not required at Fatima Khalil school.
Farzad, 16, has Down’s syndrome and is still waiting for his ID card. His mother – injured during the war and now an amputee – has not been able to acquire it for him.
Belquis, another 16-year-old, is an energetic and ambitious girl who has perfected sign language and lip-reading and is determined to finish high school. She left her state school, because a hearing impairment left her unable to follow lessons. At Fatima Khalil school, she is catching up quickly and her teachers hope to establish partnerships with state schools that are willing to reintegrate special-needs students like her.
Tawab, a seven-year-old with severe cerebral palsy, has just enrolled. Previously he barely left his house, and his mother largely negleced him after giving birth to a healthy second child.
Lying on a gym mat, Tawab’s muscles are tense, and his head – which he is unable to control himself – rests on a pillow.
“I want him to be able to eat by himself one day and I’d love for him to walk,” says his physical therapist, Mary Sadat, navigating the little boy through his exercises. Eighteen pupils receive regular physical therapy – most of them were born with cerebral palsy.
“He should have been receiving therapy throughout his entire life,” adds Sadat, who, like most of the other teachers at the school, previously worked with an aid organisation.
Sitting in one of the school’s lunchrooms, the warm spring sun flooding in, Ahmad says she wished Fatima could have seen the school – and the children’s smiles.
“This place offers us hope,” she says. “We hope we can contribute to normalising special needs in Afghanistan. We hope this can be the beginning of a movement for change.”
Under the volcano: a year after Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption, people of Goma start to rebuild their lives | Global development
Migration crisis: The Nicaraguans who are learning to swim to avoid drowning in US river crossing | International
Seeing his son with the water below his waist, standing firm on the stones of the riverbed, Pablo Cuevas ruled out using the 60-meter rope he had bought to cross the Rio Grande with his family, because it would prove more of a hindrance than a useful tool in their desperate attempt to reach American soil.
“Dad! The river is calm!” shouted the 22-year-old from about 30 meters away from the bank. Faced with the imminent arrival of Mexican or American border agents, the man let go of the rope, hugged his five-year-old grandson very tightly and entered the waters. It was mid-morning on April 17, less than a month ago. The Rio Grande, a “treacherous” river according to the migrants who have lived to tell the tale, was calm that day. It was a lucky break for this family that fled Nicaragua because of their father’s job: Pablo Cuevas is a renowned human rights defender in his country.
Accustomed to tense situations back home due to his clashes with gangs and police officers under the dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, Cuevas concealed his fear of jumping into the river so that his wife, daughter-in-law and his other grandson would not lose the courage they had rehearsed during the 40-day journey to Ciudad Acuña, in Mexico’s Coahuila state. The trip had taken them across Central America and Mexico, along a road rife with robberies, kidnappings, extortion, fatigue, hunger and death that 49,738 Nicaraguans followed in the first quarter of 2022 alone, according to the United States Customs and Border Protection. That is the largest number of migrants from this country to try to cross the US border in recent history.
It was on the first week of March, as he sat inside his home in Managua, that Cuevas made the decision to join this unprecedented exodus to escape the political violence and precarious economic situation that Nicaragua has been experiencing since 2018, following social protests that were brutally repressed. by the police and paramilitary groups. The country’s sociopolitical crisis has deepened since June 2021, when the Ortega-Murillo presidential couple intensified the hunt for opponents that facilitated Ortega’s re-election and perpetuation in power.
“Before the government closed the CPDH (Permanent Human Rights Commission),” says Cuevas, alluding to the last such organization left in Nicaragua, I received threats and intimidating messages. Someone from the government told me that I had better leave… I have never been a fan of desk jobs, I always liked to be out doing field work, but there came a point when I could no longer practice freely, and my wife was having nervous breakdowns thinking that they could arrest me at any moment. So we decided to leave, and the route through the Rio Grande seemed the best, after analyzing it with many users I had who had already crossed into the United States,” he tells EL PAÍS.
The Cuevas family’s greatest fear was drowning in the river. Between March and April 2022, news of Nicaraguans killed in those waters shocked the country: 10 people registered by the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico, although there are other agencies that put the number at 14, such as the non-profit Comunidad Nicaragüense en Texas. There were cases like that of a four-year-old girl swept away by the current, or the most recent drowning, on May 1, of Calixto Nelson Rojas, a radio host for Radio Darío, a station that was burned and attacked by the Sandinista regime. The death of the radio journalist was recorded by a Fox News reporter: it happened before the eyes of US and Mexican border agents who did not help him because they were prohibited from doing so, even as Rojas cried out for help. The reason for not saving him was that a Border Patrol officer allegedly drowned weeks ago while trying to rescue two migrants.
Cuevas, a man who was well informed thanks to his work as a human rights defender, knew about the dangers of crossing the river. “We began to do introspection exercises with the family, to remember one of our camping trips to the sea in Nicaragua, specifically once an undercurrent dragged us out to sea, but we were able to swim and save ourselves,” says the lawyer, who is now living in Florida, where he has started an organization to help other Nicaraguan migrants. “So I told my family to remember to bury their feet firmly in the bottom so we could cross the river.”
The Cuevas were able to cross without a rope and without a life jacket. However, some 3,000 kilometers south of the Rio Grande, in Nicaragua, dozens who have decided to leave the country and do not know how to swim are taking precautions before heading north: they are signing up for Mario Orozco’s swimming lessons.
‘I know it is a dangerous river’
With no major signs of a solution to the sociopolitical crisis, Nicaragua has become a country on the run. In 2021 alone, the United States Border Patrol tallied 87,530 Nicaraguans who tried to enter the southern border without documents. An exponential increase occurred in June, when the Ortega-Murillos imprisoned all their adversaries and ended the possibility of a resolution to the conflict through transparent elections. If one asks people in Nicaragua about the best decision in this scenario, the majority, especially young people, will answer the same thing: to leave. Migrant groups leave at dawn from some gas stations in Managua, while others who feel politically persecuted, such as Pablo Cuevas, do so clandestinely across the Honduran border.
Border Patrol figures from January to March of this year provide a measure of this booming exodus: 70,066 Nicaraguans have surrendered to patrol officers. “But there is an underreporting,” says the Association of Nicaraguans in Mexico. There has been a change in the migratory dynamics from this country, driven by political violence that has aggravated endemic ills (a precarious economy and lack of jobs). In 2018, at least 120,000 Nicaraguans applied for asylum in Costa Rica. But the pandemic plunged this latter country into an unemployment crisis and Nicaraguans reconfigured their flight path. First, because Costa Rica has collapsed and second, because Joe Biden’s immigration promises were interpreted as greater flexibility by the US government.
Suddenly, the migrant caravans in which Hondurans and Salvadorans used to predominate began to be led by Nicaraguans, who are now also prey to the mafias along the route. Among those preparing to flee the country, crossing the Rio Grande became the best option despite the dangers of its waters. That is why the post on Facebook by professional swimmer Mario Orozco offering free lessons went viral in Nicaragua.
Orozco assures that some of his friends drowned in the Rio Grande and that moved him into action. “I am a professional swimmer, I know the techniques to swim in open waters. So I took one of my days off to teach and avoid these tragedies,” he says, emphasizing that his work is humanitarian and not political. The swimmer is concise and prefers not to delve into details. He does not say why but, for those who live in Nicaragua, it is understood: anything that the Sandinista government views as criticism can cost jail time.
The pool where Orozco teaches is usually packed, as a reflection of the urgency to leave Nicaragua. “I know it is a dangerous river,” says Roberto García, a Nicaraguan who left the country a few weeks ago and is now in Tapachula, Mexico, where he is “preparing myself mentally” to ford the Rio Grande. “There are those who take swimming lessons; I, for example, am watching YouTube videos, asking other friends who have already crossed where it is less deep; the current less strong… I am afraid, but the situation is more critical when I am going to cross with my son,” confesses García, an auto refrigeration technician who used to provide services to the Supreme Court of Justice.
García was imprisoned for seven months for participating in the 2018 protests in Nicaragua. Upon release from prison, his workshop was never able to recover due to police harassment and lack of customers. Weary, he decided to migrate. “I don’t even want to think about the day I’m going to cross the river with my wife and son. It unsettles me. My son is 10 years old and I only think of him, especially when I see so many brothers drowning in the news… like that announcer from León. It was a horrible video. One feels powerless. I don’t want a similar video of us,” he says. He also doesn’t want to leave one last message like that of the radio host Calixto Rojas before jumping into the waters of the Rio Grande: “Today I’m leaving for Piedras Negras at one in the afternoon. Tomorrow at eight I will be trying to cross the river.”
‘Cramped and unsafe’ Glasgow housing unit forced to suspend mother and baby services | Immigration and asylum
A housing unit has been forced to close its services to mothers and babies after a damning report found that the “cramped and unsafe” accommodation breached their human rights.
In its report, the Children and Young People’s Commissioner Scotland said the unit, which housed asylum-seeking mothers and their children, had radiators and gas cookers dangerously close to babies’ cots, a lack of natural light and little ventilation, and no space for babies to crawl, play or walk.
Each of the 38 rooms measures approximately 5 metres by 3 metres (16ft x 10ft) and contains a single bed, cot, kitchenette and shower.
The unit, run by a Home Office subcontractor, Mears Group, was opened in January 2021 to house mothers and babies while Covid-19 restrictions were in place. Women were moved out of flats in the city centre and accommodated in the unit on the periphery of Glasgow’s Southside.
The accommodation was described as “prison-like” by the charity Amma Birth Companions, which repeatedly called for its closure. Mears said the last mother and baby had now left the unit and the Scottish Children’s Commissioner confirmed that the women had been relocated to more appropriate accommodation.
The removal of mothers and babies from the site comes after criticism of accommodation provided for asylum seekers in Glasgow when a knife attack at a hotel in the centre of the city in 2020 left six people wounded and the attacker shot dead by police. Campaigners from a Glasgow group, Refugees For Justice, said the attack was a “direct result of the dysfunctional UK asylum support and accommodation system” and that there was an accommodation crisis in the city.
Ai* arrived at the unit in the autumn of 2021, when she was three months pregnant. She lived there for seven months, and, following the birth of her daughter in March this year, she was moved out.
“When I first arrived, I thought I was only going to stay for a few hours, but then they gave me a key for the room,” she said through an interpreter. “When I opened the door, I was really scared. The room was so small, with no privacy and you [could] hear all the babies crying all around.
“Then there were mice in the room. I told my midwife, who complained to the staff at the unit, but they did nothing. They just told me to cover up the food.”
Ai, who was in a safe house for trafficked women until she arrived at the unit, says that she was asked to sign a tenancy contract, which stipulated that nobody could stay over to support her with her baby, and imposed a 10pm curfew.
“Every mum has to manage by themselves,” she said. “There were so many loud noises, and fire alarms going off in the day and at night, which scared my baby. Sometimes we had to take our babies outside at night, when the alarm went off.”
The unit housed 38 women, and Ai says there were only six washing machines, all far away from the rooms.
“I had to wash my clothes and my baby’s clothes in the sink sometimes, pouring dirty water in where I washed plates and prepared food,” she said.
She added that the window in her room would get stuck, with a barrier in front of it, leaving the room poorly ventilated and cold.
Mears said it was aware of a pest-control issue and had put measures in place at the unit, adding that furniture had been arranged so that cots were not set up close to kitchen equipment.
In a statement, Mears added: “The mother and baby unit was purpose-designed with the advice of the local authority and NHS at a time when we had a significant number of mothers and babies to support and did not have suitable accommodation.
“Our aim was to provide a good standard of accommodation and enhanced wraparound support for mothers and their children. As accommodation needs have changed, we now operate the unit as initial accommodation for single females who are newly arrived into Glasgow.”
Maree Aldam, of Amma Birth Companions, welcomed the news that the last family had now left the unit. She said: “Although we welcome the progress made to relocate mothers with babies into more suitable accommodation, we remain concerned about the long-term effects of this experience on the affected mothers and their babies.
“We continue to call on the Scottish government to put in place minimum housing standards that will protect every child in the asylum process from ever enduring such living conditions again.”
* Name has been changed to protect her identity
The headline and text of this article were amended on 19 May 2022. The housing unit is not closing down, as an earlier version said; it remains open for mothers and children, but no longer offers services to mothers and babies.
Oscar-winning La La Land star Emma Stone places three-bedroom Malibu home up for sale for $4.2M
Elon Musk denies he sexually harassed attendant on private jet in 2016 | Elon Musk
Under the volcano: a year after Mount Nyiragongo’s eruption, people of Goma start to rebuild their lives | Global development
The 1915 Armenian Genocide and its Russophobic Origins
What’s artificial intelligence best at? Stealing human ideas | Technology
The Religious Roots of Russia’s Mistrust towards the West
Global Affairs1 week ago
‘You’re free from demons and homosexuality’: Healing the wounds of Colombia’s conversion therapies | International
Current1 week ago
Inside Adele’s new home with Rich Paul as she moves into $58M mega mansion
Current1 week ago
Sale of Siteserv to Denis O’Brien based on ‘misleading information’, judge says
Current1 week ago
Rental market is at its ‘most competitive ever’ reveals Rightmove
Technology1 week ago
Twitter pauses hiring amid senior level shake-up
Technology1 week ago
Future Human kicks off with honest discussions about the future
Current1 week ago
UKCM acquires Leeds hotel for €73.2m (GB)
Current6 days ago
The Covid-induced surge in house prices has reached a tipping point, get ready for a drop