People with disabilities day: ‘I want to become an engineer’
Youssef is the youngest of five siblings. Aged 8, he is one of 30,000 students in Aleppo who receive a fresh meal at school each day from the World Food Programme (WFP). These meals are made by more than 100 women – many of whom run female-headed households – taking part in a WFP project.
“I want to become a computer engineer,” he says – a musculoskeletal condition he has means he cannot walk, though he is perfectly able to use a keyboard and play chess.
He attends a school for children with disabilities that is supported by WFP through a project serving up meals to ensure they receive critical nutrition.
WFP provides school snacks to 392,000 students across Syria each day, while each month it provides life-saving food to 5.5 million people.
Youssef’s family, like many, used to be comfortably off – but the ongoing crisis has changed things for the worse. His father, used to be a lawyer but today the daily wage he receives as a driver is barely enough to cover the most basic food needs for the family of six.
The family live in an apartment provided to them by relatives. Aleppo’s Ashrafieh neighbourhood, where they lived, suffered great destruction during the conflict that has ravaged the country for more than a decade.
Constant shelling forced them to leave and find shelter in Afrin, in rural Aleppo – Youssef’s mother, Ghazwa, was three months pregnant with him then. After a year, they moved to the governorate of Jableh where they stayed for six years.
When peace returned to Aleppo, so did they.
Ghazwa, says that getting Youssef to school poses a huge challenge because their apartment block was designed, as so many buildings are, without access for people with disabilities in mind.
“We tried to apply for an electric wheelchair for him so that he can be independent in commuting”, she says, “but we don’t know yet if we will get it or not.”
She adds: “We have a normal wheelchair now, which is also cumbersome to carry up and down the staircase.”
While Youssef wants to become a computer engineer – a dream his parents share – his school also nourishes artistic talents. It hosts a theatre space that needs repair after being damaged during conflict.
“I don't have a computer,” says Youssef. “I would like to have one. I can access the internet and do many things.”
(Not least keep up with his favourite soccer teams, such as Manchester United, Juventus and Real Madrid.)
He adds: “There is my brother’s [desktop computer], he has one – sometimes I play with it.”
Ghoufran Touma, a teacher at the Al-Amal Institute says: “We might not be wishing that all of the kids here become doctors or engineers, but they might be able to become artists with other inclinations to poetry, theatre, acting.”
Syria’s economic woes and spiralling inflation are taking their toll on families such as Youssef’s. More Syrians than ever before are in the grip of hunger and poverty – 12.4 million people do not know where their next meal will come from, a level of food insecurity higher than at any time during the decade-long conflict.
“The expenses of living are making the biggest impact,” says Ghazwa. “We cannot afford treatment for him anymore, we barely make simple living for food.”
She adds: “He always says ‘bring me this and that’, so I comfort him saying, ‘OK we will as soon as we can’ or ‘the school will bring you some of what you like to eat’.”
Ghazwa goes on: “I have young sons who can work and support with the living expenses, but at the same time I want them to continue their studies … thank God we don’t have to pay rent.
“We are originally a family that loves education. But with the crisis, education is becoming very challenging and costly.”
Conflict, mass population displacement, the impacts of the financial crisis in neighbouring Lebanon, the decline in the value of the Syrian pound and job losses due to COVID-19 have all contributed to Syria’s economic downturn.
In September, food prices in Syria reached a record high compared to just one year ago. The price of a basket of staple foods has more than doubled and is now 128 percent higher – currently at US$75, it is beyond the reach of millions of families.
At school, Youssef looks forward to the daily sandwich he receives.
“He is always eager to eat the sandwich and worries when the distribution is a little late,” his mother says.
However, the snack doesn’t quite leave him full. “I would like a banana with it,” he says.
WFP requires US$ 527.8 million by May 2022 to sustain its school feeding operations in Syria.