Disabled individuals in northern Syria: A gap in needs not bridged by aid

A displaced child from Homs to northern Syria suffers from paralysis due to a congenital dislocation in the camps of northern Aleppo - December 24, 2021 (Syria Civil Defense)

A displaced child from Homs to northern Syria suffers from paralysis due to a congenital dislocation in the camps of northern Aleppo - December 24, 2021 (Syria Civil Defense)


Idlib – Abdul Karim al-Thalji

With the continued systematic bombardment by the Syrian regime and its allies against civilians in northwest Syria, the number of individuals with physical and psychological disabilities is on the rise, exacerbating the need for support and assistance for them to be able to continue living, as they are among the fragile community groups that require special care.

Centers providing humanitarian aid to people with disabilities suffer from a lack of or intermittent funding, negatively affecting the lives of people with disabilities and adding to the challenges they face.

The director of relations at the Ataa Humanitarian association, Dr. Mamoun Sayed Issa, told Enab Baladi that the poor conditions of people with disabilities in northwest Syria are due to several reasons, most notably the high percentage of people with disabilities in the region.

The percentage of disability among the population in areas controlled by the regime is 27%, 19% in areas controlled by the Syrian Interim Government (SIG), 37% in areas controlled by the Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria (AANES), and 28% in areas controlled by the Syrian Salvation Government (SSG), according to a report by the United Nations Humanitarian Needs Assessment Program in 2021.

Sayed Issa mentioned that the high proportions of people with disabilities are due to the frequent bombardment by the regime’s forces and their allies, the lack of awareness of the causes of disability, the absence of strategies for addressing disability and reducing its high rates, in addition to significant gaps in services provided at all levels, including health, education, and protection, and the lack of contingency plans.

Challenges facing people with disabilities

Thaer Bilal, in his forties, suffers from paralysis in his legs since childhood and moves around in a wheelchair. He defied his disability, studied, and graduated from the faculty of law at the University of Damascus, and works for the Sanad organization concerned with people with disabilities. He also founded a center for disabled children in the city of Salqin in northwest Idlib.

Bilal told Enab Baladi that what hurts him the most is the person with a disability who cannot take care of his needs, expressing regret over the increasing numbers of people with disabilities, adding that all individuals from this category live in “difficult humanitarian situations” in northern Syria, especially those living in camps.

Bilal mentioned that the life of a family with a disabled person changes drastically, as they endure daily suffering in caring for them and securing their needs, which imposes additional financial burdens on them.

Bilal continued to say that people with disabilities living in the camps of northern Syria face double the suffering, as the environment and terrain of the camps do not allow someone in a wheelchair to move as they wish, and often in many places, they are unable to move independently. Moreover, the health facilities in most of the camps are not suitable for this already marginalized group, and access to them is almost an adventure.

Feb. 6 earthquake deepened the needs

The earthquake that struck southern Turkey and four Syrian provinces on February 6, 2023, had a significant impact on people with disabilities in northwest Syria, increasing their suffering and numbers, as they are essentially a fragile group that requires assistance to meet their daily needs. Some died under the rubble because they were unable to flee, and others who survived are living in difficult humanitarian conditions.

In this context, Thaer Bilal said that people with disabilities were left alone to face their fate during the earthquake. Some were left in extreme open-air locations facing the bitter cold, while others lost their relatives and could not secure their needs.

The earthquake resulted in thousands of victims, with many of the injured losing limbs or sustaining other disabilities. It resulted in over 4,500 deaths and more than 10,400 injuries in northwest Syria and displaced over 57,000 families.

Most urgent needs

Dr. Mamoun Sayed Issa mentioned that the most pressing needs of people with disabilities include securing wheelchairs, crutches, diapers, and special mattresses. Efforts should be made to integrate them into the education of students who are not disabled, as well as to increase rehabilitation centers, including physical therapy centers for those with paralysis who have bedsores and securing their medication.

According to a report by the Support Coordination Unit, the most pressing needs for people with disabilities in northern Syria are securing multipurpose cash assistance, fuel and heating means, specialized services, job opportunities, education, access to health facilities, and training to develop their skills.

Among the needs, securing wheelchairs and walking aid tools, providing appropriate public transportation, and equipping suitable paths are mentioned.

Thaer Bilal, who moves around in a wheelchair, explained that the suffering of people with disabilities is renewed every year, especially in winter, when they are affected by the cold weather and the high cost of heating.

He noted that the weight of living needs has become stronger on people with disabilities, especially if they are providers or have lost their providers. They find it difficult to secure their needs and those of their families, whether food, living expenses, health care, or medicines. This causes them additional psychological pressure.

Weak response

According to Bilal, organizations were slow in responding to provide services for people with disabilities who were affected by the earthquake disaster.

Furthermore, Ahmed al-Hakeem, from the village of Qarsa in the Jabal al-Zawiya area, who suffers from blindness due to bombing by the regime’s forces, stated that people with disabilities are a marginalized group in northern Syria despite their ability to excel. He referred to the negative perception of pity contributing to this marginalization.

Al-Hakeem explained that despite some individual initiatives by humanitarian associations and volunteer teams, this is not sufficient to meet the needs of this group.

He added that humanitarian aid targeting people with disabilities is almost non-existent, and there is no orientation for this group by humanitarian organizations. It is essential to secure healthcare and financial sponsorship for them and their families, as a large percentage of them support their families and do not have a financial resource for living.

Unsupported centers

Several organizations work to support centers assisting people with disabilities in northwest Syria, but the need is greater.

The Ataa association operates several projects serving people with disabilities in Turkey, including the Spinal Cord Injuries Center, the Hospitalisation House for the Paralyzed, and a center for artificial limbs and physical therapy.

The Sanad organization, specialized in serving individuals with disabilities, offers services in the protection, education, and economic empowerment sectors. It is based in the town of Kafr Takharim in northwest Idlib as its center inside Syria and has opened a center in Kafr Yahmul, north of Idlib.

There are two centers for teaching the blind with Braille in northwest Syria; the first is by the Turkish Relief Organization (IHH) in the city of Azaz, north of Aleppo, and the second by the Association for Health and Social Upgrading in Idlib.

Rehabilitation centers for people with mental disabilities in the Idlib governorate include the Human Care Center, Down Syndrome Center, Basher al-Sabirin Center, and the Basmat Amal center in Salqin.

Dar al-Salama in the Sajo area near Azaz provides services and care for the elderly, particularly those with disabilities. It accommodates about 42 people from various parts of Syria and cares for them.

Nizar Najjar, the founder of Dar al-Salama, told Enab Baladi that the nursing home is “unsupported” by any entity, whether government or humanitarian organizations, and relies on donations from well-off expatriates or locals. He noted that the support provided is insufficient and unsustainable.

The nursing home offers various services to its residents, including food, drink, lodging, heating, health, and psychological care, physical therapy, and constant 24-hour monitoring through night and day guards, transporting them to hospitals when needed, and securing necessary medication for sick individuals.

Meanwhile, the “Together” center in the city of Ariha, south of Idlib, is facing the threat of closure due to halted support, which endangers dozens of children with disabilities from receiving its services for free.

The center, the only one in the area, offers free therapeutic services for children with mental disabilities. Due to the halt in support, the center is threatened with closure.

Ismail al-Khatib, the supervisor of the center, told Enab Baladi that the center was a project funded by the European Union and the Children of Heaven organization. It was opened for four months, hosting 74 children with disabilities, from autism to partial or complete deafness.

Al-Khatib added that the project duration was only four months, and since November 15, 2023, the center’s staff has been working voluntarily, and the center continues to offer its services for free.

Office for people with disabilities

The Public Relations Manager at the Idlib Health Directorate, Ghanem al-Khalil, mentioned that the directorate is interested in the group of people with disabilities and recently established a specialized office to care for them and focus on their health and social situation.

He indicated that the office is managed by a person who has paralysis in both legs, adding that one of the office’s key strategies is to create an actual and effective database for people with disabilities, to facilitate targeting by organizations seeking to care for them through various projects.

Al-Khalil told Enab Baladi that there are no accurate statistics on the number of people with disabilities in northern Syria, but a UN statistic indicates that 28% of the population suffers from disability in all its forms. He mentioned that this is a significant number and should be closely monitored to draw attention to this group and fulfill their needs. The newly established office is working on preparing a service map for this group.

Northwestern Syria experiences fragile health conditions due to a decline in international aid, signaling a health crisis for millions of people. This comes amidst a continuing struggle of the residents from the deteriorating economic conditions in the region, characterized by few job opportunities, widespread unemployment, inflation, and soaring prices.

The area lives in difficult economic and living conditions, inhabited by 4.5 million people, 4.1 million of whom need assistance, 3.3 million suffer from food insecurity, 2.9 million are internally displaced, and two million live in camps, according to the United Nations. Local statistics indicate between 5.5 to 6 million people.


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