Broken Promises: The fight to educate children with disabilities in the Middle East and North Africa

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Round Earth Media
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By Sarah Ford

RABAT, MOROCCO – Karim Benabdeslam, 24, plays the piano, taught himself how to read the Koran and is getting a masters degree in Islamic studies. Not one of these accomplishments came easily. Diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome (a form of autism) at age three, it was up to Benabdeslam’s father to help his son achieve his utmost potential.

“I work hard with him to reach this level,” says Benabdeslam. “I get (home) from (my) job at 4:00 and generally all the time from 4:00 to midnight I will sit with him.”

Karim Benabdesalam is lucky. Most of Morocco’s 230,000 disabled children under age 15 struggle in an educational system that often leaves them behind. Throughout the developing world, especially the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, countries have passed new laws and ratified international treaties designed to provide basic human rights to children with physical and mental handicaps, including the right to an education, jobs and as independent a life as possible.

Mohammed Benabdeslam comforts his son Karim. “Well, it’s my son. It’s my son, and I face the problem.” Mohammed and Karim are lucky. Both are relentless in their efforts to make education easy and navigable for people with mental disabilities. Mohammed is an unusual parent, fighting over two decades to get more help in schools for his son and others like him, as well as more assistance for other families raising children with Asperger’s and Autism. Photo by Emma Hohenstein

Mohammed Benabdeslam comforts his son Karim. “Well, it’s my son. It’s my son, and I face the problem.” Mohammed and Karim are lucky. Both are relentless in their efforts to make education easy and navigable for people with mental disabilities. Mohammed is an unusual parent, fighting over two decades to get more help in schools for his son and others like him, as well as more assistance for other families raising children with Asperger’s and Autism. By Emma Hohenstein.

“It’s a matter of human rights and social justice,” says Léo Goupil-Barbier, who works throughout Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco leading Handicap International’s Maghreb project.

But these promises have not changed the reality on the ground. 95 percent of children with disabilities in the MENA region fail to receive even a primary education, according to a 2009 review by UNESCO, a United Nations agency that promotes education, science and the preservation of culture. In Morocco the situation is a little better. Still, only 32 percent of children with disabilities are enrolled in school.

“They talk the talk, but they don’t do the talk,” says Paula Pinto, a researcher with Disability Rights Promotion International (DRPI) who studies MENA countries.

Zacaria, 17, mimes cutting his forearm while displaying a faint grid of previous scars. Depression and suicide are coming amongst children and adults with mental disabilities. Because of the social stigmas and shame surrounding this, these individuals often feel isolated and withdrawn from society. By Emma Hohenstein

Zacaria, 17, mimes cutting his forearm while displaying a faint grid of previous scars. Depression and suicide are coming amongst children and adults with mental disabilities. Because of the social stigmas and shame surrounding this, these individuals often feel isolated and withdrawn from society. By Emma Hohenstein.

One of those left behind is the daughter of Soumia Amrani, a member of the National Human Rights Council and an advocate involved with several disability rights organizations.

“I have three daughters. Two daughters are studying in the best schools in Morocco. And the third one, because she is autistic, she has only the NGO (Handicap International),” Amrani says. “My country hasn’t the right to make a difference between my daughters, and oblige me to live in a situation of discrimination within my own home and my own family.”

In September of 2014, The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child expressed concern that Morocco relies too much on NGOs for the education of children with disabilities. Amrani insists that the Moroccan government needs to do more.

Manna, 6, plays with colorful building blocks. Manna has Downs’ Syndrome and activities like this help her build spatial reasoning and cognitive development. Skills like these take longer to learn for individuals with mental disabilities so even these small exercises help improve the lives of these children. By Emma Hohenstein

Manna, 6, plays with colorful building blocks. Manna has Downs’ Syndrome and activities like this help her build spatial reasoning and cognitive development. Skills like these take longer to learn for individuals with mental disabilities, and such exercises help improve the lives of these children. By Emma Hohenstein

“We spoke in the television, in the radio, in the newspaper and told to the families ‘it’s not your fault,'” Amrani says, slamming her hands on the table in front of her. “You have the right to tell the government that they have to support you.”

Disabled children who go to public school in Morocco encounter social stigma and teachers who aren’t trained to teach disabled children, says Benabdeslam, whose son was enrolled in school from the ages 12 to 18.

The children file into school “jouje wa jouje”, two by two, older children helping along the younger ones. Independence is the bedrock of the curriculum at Association Basma. Older children are responsible for supporting younger children, tend to the school garden, care for the ducks and chickens, prepare and clean up after meals, and organize class space. By Emma Hohenstein.

The children file into school “jouje wa jouje”, two by two, older children helping along the younger ones. Independence is the bedrock of the curriculum at Association Basma. Older children are responsible for supporting younger children, tending to the school garden, caring for the ducks and chickens, preparing and cleaning up after meals, and organizing class space. By Emma Hohenstein.

“Always I was near him to explain to the professor or the director and all the people who were there around him. I was obliged to explain all the time,” says Benabdeslam.

In November of 2014, Amrani coordinated a conference of teachers, advocates and government officials to discuss incorporating government-required inclusivity training in teacher education. The training would focus on educating teachers on how to develop methods and curriculum that is accessible to all students, including those with disabilities.

On the outskirts of Fez, surrounded by crop fields and sitting on an isolated dirt path, the Basma Association is another sign of a hopeful shift. Basma is among a growing number of government-funded associations for handicapped children. The three-year-old center is meant to provide disabled children with educational and life skills. So far two students have landed woodworking jobs.

Edem, 5, flips through an Arabic easy-reader. Eden is part of the youngest group at Association Basma. Initially the school only accepted students age 13 and up. But due to increased interest and need, they opened their doors to younger students. Since then, classes have started to provide care and education for young children offering them building blocks, pattern tiles, coloring books, and alphabet guides. By Emma

Edem, 5, flips through an Arabic easy-reader. Eden is part of the youngest group at Association Basma. Initially the school only accepted students age 13 and up. But due to increased interest and need, they opened their doors to younger students. Since then, classes have started to provide care and education for young children offering them building blocks, pattern tiles, coloring books, and alphabet guides. By Emma Hohenstein

Hoja, 10, poses for a portrait while her classmates line up to sing the Moroccan National Anthem. Hope is autistic and one of four girls at Association Basma. She always studies her shapes and colors. According to Paula Pinto of Disability Rights International, far fewer girls are enrolled in handicap programs across the globe. By Emma Hohenstein

Hoja, 10, poses for a portrait while her classmates line up to sing the Moroccan National Anthem. Hope is autistic and one of four girls at Association Basma. She always studies her shapes and colors. According to Paula Pinto of Disability Rights International, far fewer girls are enrolled in handicap programs across the globe. By Emma Hohenstein

On a day where rain has muted most outdoor activity, the students of Basma are crowded into the gym, chaotically swinging their bodies to traditional Moroccan music. Some gesture emphatically to friends sitting reserved in the corner, pulling them into the fray. Watching on the sidelines is woodworking instructor Mohammed Bouchke.

“We feel lucky, because in the past there was no association like this one in the region,” Bouchke says later. “In the past, the kids were lost. Lost without education, training, or anything to do.”

But the perceptions of children with handicaps may be slowly changing in Morocco. Mina Maad, president of Morocco’s Autism Collective, says organizations like hers have improved awareness and understanding especially among parents who never used to think there was help for their children.

A teacher helps her student with his writing. Each student is provided one on one attention. She speaks in a soothing but executive tone and the respect given to her from the students is clear. She gives this student a warm smile and handwritten star on his class work. He walks away with a thumbs up to his friends. By Emma Hohenstein

A teacher helps her student with his writing. Each student is provided one on one attention. She speaks in a soothing but executive tone and the respect given to her from the students is clear. She gives this student a warm smile and handwritten star on his class work. He walks away with a thumbs up to his friends. By Emma Hohenstein

“People would feel so ashamed about autism,” said Maad. “They never do anything, they just keep their kids at home and feel shame about showing them off to the public,” said Mina Maad.

But that was never the way Benabdeslam thought of his son. Given the appropriate education and training, students with handicaps can accomplish much, insists Benabdeslam as he listens to his son sing along to music on his MP3 player. Benabdeslam smiles as his eyes twinkle with pride.

“[His disability] is from God,” he says. “I have to face that, and I will travel with him until I go to the other sky.”

Karim and Mohammed Benabdeslam gleefully discuss Karim’s new job. Karim, 25, will be receiving his Master’s in Islamic Studies in one year. In the mean time he practices singing and piano. “He wants this, and I follow him in this choice,” Mohammed says. By Emma Hohenstein

Karim and Mohammed Benabdeslam gleefully discuss Karim’s new job. Karim, 25, will be receiving his master’s in Islamic Studies this year. In the mean time he practices singing and piano. “He wants this, and I follow him in this choice,” Mohammed says. By Emma Hohenstein

Sarah Ford and Emma Hohenstein spent several months on an SIT Study Abroad program in Morocco and produced this story in association with Round Earth Media, www.RoundEarthMedia.org which is supporting the next generation of global journalists. Hamza Joulal and Sara Werbi contributed reporting.