Helping the most vulnerable of Syria’s refugees
A salute to Myroslava Tataryn, working tirelessly with disabled and injured refugees streaming into Jordan from war-torn Syria
It’s September. Birds are flying south for the winter. Humans are sailing on leaky overcrowded boats to Europe. Migration, both natural and unnatural, is underway everywhere. I just had a Skype chat with my friend and former colleague Myroslava Tataryn, who is now in Jordan. She knows a thing or two about migration, having done it plenty of times in her own life.
The last time we spoke, she was in Ethiopia—or was it Senegal? Now, she and her husband, Maodo, are in Jordan, where she is the regional inclusion adviser for the non-governmental organization Handicap International. It all happened very quickly. The job came up, she assured her family in Canada it would be safe and moved to Jordan just as the country hit the headlines and fighter jets started weaving patterns across the sky every day, a fallout of the war in Syria. Her job involves everything to do with mainstreaming people with disabilities—supporting external actors, from the UN to small charities, to be more inclusive. She visits the homes of Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, and sees first-hand the cost of the current human migration.
Tataryn was born with many of her joints dislocated. She is all too familiar with prejudice and barriers. But consider this: She’s worked for over a decade to ensure health and protection services for marginalized populations, particularly people with disabilities. She speaks English, French, and Ukrainian. She has degrees from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Queen’s University, Canada. In her 33 years, she has lived and worked in Ghana, Uganda, Jordan, Ethiopia, Malawi, Senegal, the UK, Canada and South Africa. I don’t know about you, but “disabled” certainly isn’t the first word that comes to mind.
She recently met Rama, a 32-year- old Syrian woman who was still in hospital two days after being discharged. She had nowhere to go. In December 2014, a rocket hit Rama’s house. Shrapnel in her spine paralysed her. She went to Jordan for treatment. Her husband and son were sent back at the border, so she had to cross alone. After six months of being in and out of residential care, she still can’t move on her own. And, having moved this far, she doesn’t know where to go next even if she could.
Rama is one of about four million Syrian refugees flung out of their homes and now living in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. A recent HelpAge International/Handicap International survey showed that older people and people with disabilities, injuries and chronic illnesses amount to 30% of the total refugee population in Jordan and Lebanon. These populations face multiple barriers of physical inaccessibility, lack of access to information, negative attitudes from community members and service providers, and exclusion from data-gathering and programme planning. Tataryn’s brief is to understand their situations, work out what they need and help relief agencies provide it.
This career wasn’t part of her plan. She was more of an environmental activist and originally planned to study medicine. As an undergraduate, she went to Ghana to study and do an internship at the Northern Regional Resource Centre for Persons with Disabilities, Tamale, run by and for people with disabilities. She caused a stir because the people in that rural area had never seen a disabled white person.
Later, she made a speech at an international disability conference, saying, “What struck me was that in the first couple of weeks the only disabled people I saw were on the side of the road begging. So, sure, in the daytime in lectures I was pondering community projects and post-colonial theories, but on my way home I was wondering if that’s the corner I would be sitting on if I had been born in Ghana. Was begging the only option? Before too long, I met some musicians practising under a tree outside the gates of the University of Ghana, Legon. I loved the music and would sit under a nearby tree listening to them.... Many of the musicians seemed to be more or less my age, and one of them had a visible mobility impairment, having had polio at a young age. This was my first glimpse...that, no, even here begging was not the only option...”
She’s a force of nature, Tataryn. She could have just stayed in Canada and saved her family a whole lot of worry. But she couldn’t; she had to move. And the lessons she’s learnt along the way are now being put to use in refugee communities in Jordan and Lebanon.
Desperate people making desperate choices to flee danger are obviously very different from birds following their evolutionary blueprints and soaring across continents. Forced migration is neither beautiful nor natural. I put them together here because both are journeys to survive, as individuals and species.
It seems fitting during this migration season to salute Tataryn’s courage, spirit and hard work, and also to finish with a quote on global movement from Gods Of The Morning, a book by John Lister-Kaye about the wildlife of the Scottish Highlands:
“They’re heading out, patiently running the race their needs have set before them. They all need to feed, to breed and to survive, like surfers riding the waves of Fate… We migrate, whether a few yards before finding a suitable place to put down roots or circumnavigating the globe, like the Arctic tern, which travels ten thousand miles to the Antarctic and back again every year, patiently making the most of our lot, our personal shout at the survival of ourselves and our species. That’s what migration is…. The imperative to get up and go when we need to is written into the electrochemical circuitry of human brains as well as bird brains.”
Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.
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