Disabled and Arab – a double barrier?

The Syrian Arab Army Band perform at the Special Olympics Opening Ceremony.

It is hard getting to the Olympics when your team lives under occupation.

According to members of the Palestinian delegation to this year’s Middle East Special Olympics in Damascus, some of the squad met for the first time only when they arrived in Syria.

Because a number live in the Gaza Strip and others are based in the occupied West Bank, they have been separated all their lives by restrictions on travel between the two territories.

The Palestinians were among the 23 squads invited to the 7th SOMENA (Special Olympics Middle East and North Africa) Regional Games taking place in Damascus this week.

Among the others who attended a fever-pitch Opening Ceremony in the 10,000-seater Tishreen Stadium over the weekend were Iran (not traditionally a “Middle Eastern” nation, but that seems to have been overlooked), UAE (whose squad looked somewhat incongruous parading around the stadium in their distinctly un-athletic jalabiyas and headscarves), and Somalia (who had a total of four athletes during the opening – because people in Somalia “don’t care much about the disabled”, according to one volunteer)

Attitudes towards the disabled in Syria and across the Middle East have long fallen short of what might be called “Western standards”.

Speak to many Syrians and they will tell you how disabled youngsters are often given the “Mrs Rochester” treatment – hidden away inside the house out of a sense of shame or embarrassment. This is backed up by a UNESCO Education for All report last year, which highlighted “negative attitudes towards the disabled” across the Middle East as having an effect on the self-confidence of children with learning disabilities.

But organisers of this year’s Special Olympics want to change all that. One of the Syrian athletes, a swimmer with Down’s Syndrome called Alaa al-Zaybak has even become something of a national poster boy, starring in a TV series about the disabled during Ramadan and being billed as a star by the Syrian newspapers.

There is a long way to go, but these Olympics seem to be doing their bit in the fight against hidebound ignorance.