Like teenagers the world over, Syrian refugee Alaa is constantly tapping away on his cell phone. But rather than chatting with friends or using social media, Alaa – who was born blind – uses the old handset as his sole means of writing and a vital tool in achieving his ambition of getting an education.
“The phone was a gift from my uncle,” explained Alaa, who fled Syria with his family in 2014 aged 13, and moved to Akkar in the far north of Lebanon. “I would press a key and learn what it was – one, then two, then three letters – and soon I could write a word, a sentence and a full text.”
Together with his younger brother Ahmad, who is also blind, Alaa was determined to enroll in school in Lebanon, despite having missed several years of education due to the conflict and limited accessibility of local schools.
With braille learning unavailable in the rural area where their informal settlement is located, and unable to afford a specialist private school, the brothers were ultimately welcomed at a nearby Lebanese public school that holds afternoon classes for Syrian refugees.
“Their capacity to learn by heart is unbelievable,” said their father Mahmoud. “I could see they had potential and I did not want them to waste their future.”
Although having to catch up on schooling means Alaa is a couple of years older than his classmates, his teachers have been impressed by the way he has overcome every obstacle. The school does not have resources to deliver inclusive education but Alaa himself has found ways to adapt, using his phone to write the answers to tests as well as recording lessons to play back at home for revision.
"Education is everything."
“We try to integrate them as much as possible,” explained Doha Hajar, a Lebanese teacher at the school. “Alaa was able with time to overcome his problems, his disability did not stop him from persevering, learning and succeeding, and he is competing with the brightest in class.”
For his part, Alaa is resolute when it comes to the value of learning. “Education is everything,” he said.
The World Health Organization estimates that 15 per cent of the world’s population has some form of disability. Monday 3 December marks International Day of Persons with Disabilities, which this year focuses on empowering those with disabilities and ensuring inclusivity and equality.
In situations of forced displacement, people with disabilities often face additional barriers to accessing services such as education, and have fewer opportunities to play an active role in their communities.
Lebanon is currently host to more than 950,000 registered refugees from Syria’s conflict, around half of whom are children of school age (from three to 18 years old). About 220,000 Syrian children attend lessons, either during dedicated afternoon shifts or in morning classes alongside Lebanese pupils, but more than half of young refugees remain out of school.
"I hope for a beautiful future."
Having developed his own unique approach to learning, Alaa said it is the more routine aspects of attending school that can sometimes prove testing. “I mainly find difficulties in moving around. But if someone helps me, I can overcome that challenge,” he said. “I don’t really feel different from others. I can do things that others can’t do.”
He and Ahmad walk to school each day with their siblings, and once there, their fellow pupils help them to navigate between classrooms. Ahmad’s sister sits next to him during lessons and helps him to follow the classes.
Determined to push themselves, the brothers have recently started learning French, and help each other out by testing themselves on vocabulary. “Often when we are together, I ask him about French words. He has a strong memory and knows a lot of words,” Alaa said. “We work together, strengthen each other and help each other.”
The brothers both have ambitions of one day becoming Arabic teachers, but the first objective is to finish school. With Alaa’s cheerful determination to overcome all obstacles in his path, it is easy to imagine him fulfilling his goals if only he gets the same opportunities as other young people.
“I am hopeful,” he said. “There is no life without hope, and no success without work. I hope for a beautiful future and even if we all have to die one day, I want to be able to leave a good legacy.”