After an accident back in Syria, Samaher lives with her disability. Since then, she had to earn respect again and again. Today, she is empowering others and has her own brand.
“I couldn’t accept what happened to me,” says Samaher Samour when she thinks about the accident that changed her life. “I just cried all day.” On that fateful day, the then 15-year-old had gone to relax from stress at school on the rooftop of her parents’ house in Daraa city in Syria. “I saw the neighbours doing it and wanted to try it too.” Sitting on the wall on the roof, she must have fallen asleep. The next thing she remembers is lying on the ground in front of the house and people looking for a plank to take her to the hospital as gently as possible.
Soon after, it was clear that she would be a paraplegic for the rest of her life. “I was shocked,” says Samaher. “We didn’t know anyone with a disability, and I had no idea where we could get a wheelchair.” Months followed that she refused to leave the house. “I didn’t dare to meet people.” Eventually, she overcame this initial shock. Her father drove her to school every day by car and picked her up afterwards. “Back then in Syria, there were no activities for disabled people,” recalls Samaher, who eventually got a wheelchair. “I couldn’t accept the way people stared at me.” She felt left behind. “Always being the ‘poor girl’ was really annoying!”
Against all odds
Today, Samaher is 40, and one of 49,000 refugees with disabilities in Jordan, where around 730,000 refugees are registered with UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. 170,000 live with special needs and require special assistance. UNHCR protection programmes provide targeted support to people like Samaher, UNHCR’s partners offer psycho-social support. At the 23 Community Service Centres run by UNHCR and partners across Jordan, women and men with disabilities are empowered to join the teams of volunteers that coordinate the day-to-day work at the centres. In addition, the agency distributes hearing aids, eyeglasses, crutches and wheelchairs to those in need. From January to August 2023, refugees received over 1,700 such assistive devices across Jordan.
While still a schoolgirl in Syria, Samaher decided to make her way against all odds: “I wanted to live my life,” she says, highlighting her father’s role in accepting her situation more and more. “He said, ‘You have a long life ahead of you’.” An uncle who was a psychiatrist helped Samaher out of a personal crisis she describes as depression. Thanks to her supportive family, she finished school and began studying Islamic religious studies. Her sister drove her to university in a car Samaher had rented. By then, the war in Syria had already begun. “I was really afraid to drive from Daraa to Damascus when we heard the bombs falling. Then there was the feeling of not belonging. “The sight of a person in a wheelchair was already unusual, but when this person was also studying….”, Samaher remembers “a lot of bullying”.
“Not qualified because you are in a wheelchair”.
“After graduating, I was determined to work,” Samaher says in her room in her parents’ flat in the Jordanian city of Irbid, “and normally my degree is enough to teach.” But when she was interviewed for the position of teacher, the newly graduate encountered an unexpected hurdle: “‘You’re not qualified because you’re in a wheelchair,’ the teacher said.” Samaher quickly decided to overcome this hurdle and take another diploma to be accepted as a teacher.
But then the war got in her way: “We kept hearing the planes, and the bombs kept falling. So we decided to leave.” Her brother had gone ahead and rented a flat in Irbid. “We thought we would stay for a month.”
That was ten years ago.
Looking back, Samaher says, “I only really became self-confident in Jordan”. It didn’t happen overnight. First, she found a connection in a community centre supported by UNHCR and the opportunity to improve her skills in candle making, one of her hobbies. “I also took other handicraft courses.”
Candles and empowerment
Samaher is now established as a trainer and holds courses on reusing plastic and cardboard. And she has established her own small online business – “House of candles and soups”. She makes her candles using various moulds made of glass or silicone. First, she melts paraffin, adds colouring and fragrances before pouring the mixture into the moulds. The candle wick is fixed in a holder until the candle has cooled down.
“My favourite candle is the purple one with the butterfly. Butterflies are like my goal – to fly high up in the sky.”
As a member of the Women Empowerment Network, she also holds awareness courses on women’s rights and is grateful to UNHCR for supporting her in moments when she felt discriminated against as a disabled person. “UNHCR protected me from bullying and I could always call the helpline when I felt harassed,” she says. UNHCR’s helpline in Jordan receives more than 200,000 calls every month. Refugees receive standard, automated answers to common questions. Those who need individual counselling, like Samaher, are put through to one of ten agents.
Such counselling and protection programmes for refugees with special needs at the community level would not be possible without flexible funding. Flexible contributions allow UNHCR to reallocate funds to parts of the programme, such as protection programmes at the community level, which would otherwise not be adequately funded.
Not far from Samaher’s home, you can see another example – the health clinic with partner Caritas. UNHCR support for health care, for which the organisation has not received any earmarked contributions this year, is also possible thanks to flexible funding.
Samaher cannot yet live from the sales of her candles alone. But when she makes candles, she says, she forgets all the hurdles around her for a while. “My favourite candle is the purple one with the butterfly. Butterflies are like my goal – to fly high up in the sky.”