MERCY CORPS: Helping Child Refugees with Special Needs

Hayam, 8, and her family live in Zaatari refugee camp in Jordan. They fled to Jordan to escape the violence in Syria nearly a year ago.

“I have to go to school, I need to study,” Hayam insisted, but her parents were afraid to let her go to school in the bitter weather. For the first 10 months after arriving in Zaatari, Hayam was unable to attend school. She has muscular dystrophy and her rapidly deteriorating muscles made the quarter-mile walk to class impossible.

Watching her younger brother and sister go to school and return with homework would infuriate her. “I fought with my sister, who is in kindergarten, because she was going to school and had homework, and why didn't I? I would take her homework and do it myself,” Hayam told me.

Mercy Corps, a Global Impact charity partner, is helping Hayam and other children with disabilities get equal access to education. MercyCorps provides wheelchairs to every child who is physically unable to walk to school so they can make the trip.
With her new wheelchair, Hayam was finally able to restart her education—she is one of 100 students with disabilities who have been integrate into UNICEF schools since the end of last year.

With the support of UNICEF, MercyCorps is integrating vulnerable refugee children in camps and urban areas into the public school system. The goal is to ensure the most at-risk children receive the same educational benefits—and hope for their future—as their peers. The program also benefits marginalized Jordanian children living in areas now struggling to support both their residents and refugees.

Through the program, adult refugees with university degrees provide one-on-one tutoring sessions to children with special needs three to five times per week to make sure these children don’t get left behind.

The program also promotes extra-curricular activities like art, handicrafts, sports and puppet theatre in schools. While the classes give all the children a chance to be creative and active—providing some normalcy in a childhood otherwise defined by war—the interaction also decreases the stigma that often marginalizes children with disabilities from their peers.

“Her father and I are extremely happy,” Hayam’s mother said. “She has what she was looking for, which was to go to school, read and write. Now she doesn’t fight with her brother and sister anymore. Now every day when she comes home from school she starts writing her homework in her notebook alongside her siblings. Sometimes she even sleeps with her notebook. She loves homework.”

This crisis has turned the lives of Syrian children upside down, but every child uprooted by the conflict deserves the opportunity to preserve their future. MercyCorps works to ensure children like Hayam don’t fall through the cracks.