It was during a visit to the dentist six years ago in her hometown in rural Aleppo that Badriyeh Hayan learnt the truth about her “shy, quiet” son Mohamed, then aged four. The dentist noticed that the young boy did not respond to his mother’s voice, and told her: “I think your son is deaf."
Tests confirmed that both Mohamed and his younger brother Issam had been born profoundly deaf. But with only her husband Abdul Latif’s farming and construction wages to support them, there was no way the family could afford the costly cochlear implant surgery that might allow her sons to hear.
Syria’s worsening conflict made their situation even more dire. Heavy shelling reached their neighbourhood and destroyed their home, forcing the family to flee to neighbouring Lebanon. They moved to an informal tented settlement in Jiyeh, some 20 kilometres south of the Lebanese capital Beirut.
“Someone from UNHCR contacted me to tell me they will do the surgery ... I just started crying.”
Scraping by on monthly food vouchers and whatever Abdul Latif can earn from occasional manual work, the family lives a typically precarious existence in a country where more than half of the roughly one million registered Syrian refugees live in extreme poverty.
Then, in June last year, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, organized a visit by prominent Lebanese journalist Rima Maktabi to the settlement where they live. A video of her meeting Mohamed and Issam and interacting with them using sign language went viral, and resulted in the Kuwaiti Red Crescent offering to pay more than US$50,000 to cover the cost of their surgery.
“Someone from UNHCR contacted me to tell me that they will do the surgery for my children,” Badriyeh remembers. “I couldn’t believe it. We are struggling to survive, how can we possibly do the surgery? I just started crying.”
Despite Badriyeh’s nerves before the four-hour operations to fit the implants at Beirut’s Sacre Coeur Hospital, the surgery – organized by UNHCR’s partner the Makhzoumi Foundation in August 2017 – was a success. Within two months both boys began to hear sounds for the first time.
“At first they couldn’t cope with it – they weren’t used to it and it was overwhelming,” she explains. “But after a while they loved it. Now, whenever I call them, they turn back and look at me and smile.”
Another major result of the surgery is that the boys will finally be able to go to school, having never been before. They attend lessons during the week at a specialist school in Saida just down the coast, with the fees, books and transport also paid for by the Kuwaiti Red Crescent. On Saturdays they have sessions at the hospital to help them speak clearly.
“At first… it was overwhelming… Now, whenever I call them, they turn back and look at me and smile.”
“Social media changes lives,” said Mohammed Abu Asaker, UNHCR’s Senior Regional Public Information Officer. “Mohammed and Issam’s experience is a testament to the power of online communities, and the individual, in making a difference. I am thrilled to see them hear and speak for the first time.”
Of the total 5.48 million refugees from the conflict in Syria, aid organizations estimate that one in five has a physical, sensory or intellectual impairment. In situations of forced displacement, those with disabilities often face barriers to accessing services such as education.
Back at home, Mohamed focuses intently on the sound of his mother’s voice and repeats numbers as she says them. Badriyeh allows herself a smile of deep satisfaction, and admits that she can still scarcely believe what has happened.
“’I called everyone I know to tell them that my children did the operation and they can now hear,” she says. “I had lost hope in them having the operation, and going to school. It is like a dream come true.”
With additional reporting by Houssam Hariri