The Hidden Toll of Syria’s War
on Children with Disabilities
The Syrian war, raging since 2011, has claimed countless victims and upended the lives of millions. Children with disabilities have faced heightened risks during attacks. The critical services they need – assistive devices, education, health care, and psychosocial support – are not available, or have been disrupted by the conflict. They have lost years of schooling and face discrimination and stigma in their communities. Bullying is common.
Human Rights Watch interviewed six children with disabilities and 22 parents and family members in Syria between October 2020 and June 2022. Most of the children interviewed were born shortly before or during the conflict. Their lives have been overwhelmingly shaped by armed conflict and violence, displacement, poverty, and the degradation of essential and other services that have characterized it.
In facing these difficulties, families have taken enormous steps to keep their children safe and to support them. The children and their families are determined to build a future where disability rights are ensured and where they have access to health care, assistive devices, inclusive education, and psychosocial support. These are some of their stories.
In 2018, Ibrahim and his family were forced to leave their home in Idlib governorate when he was two years old. “We made the decision to flee and leave our home since we couldn’t take it any longer,” his father said. “[There were] a lot of bombs and airstrikes; our lives were in danger.”
Ibrahim's family was forced to flee the conflict multiple times. They were living in a tent in a makeshift camp on the Syrian border with Turkey, in October 2020, when Human Rights Watch first interviewed Ibrahim’s father. When Human Rights Watch interviewed the father again in June 2022 and met Ibrahim, they still hadn’t been able to return to their home. Instead, they were living in a rented house in a town near the Turkey border.
Ibrahim, now five, has autism and hyperactivity. His father explained the biggest challenge is a lack of access to education and other services, including programs for parents, that would help him and his wife to better support Ibrahim.
Ibrahim is very attached to his father, who worries about the family’s ability to care and support the boy’s development:
He does not know how to communicate with us, we do not know how to communicate with him, and there is nowhere to look for support. He is still young, and there is probably something we can do...I am looking at my child, and I do not know how to support him. What can I do? Will he grow up without access to education or support?
It is hard for Ibrahim to interact with other children and he’s been bullied because he behaves differently. “When he goes out to the street to play with other children, he doesn’t know how to act, and they bully him a lot and hit him,” his father said.
Despite Ibrahim’s lack of access to education, “he is trying to write, and I was so happy for him to be able to do that,” his father says proudly. Education is very important for the family and Ibrahim’s parents dream that he has access to a quality and inclusive education. Unfortunately, as the conflict drags on, this dream remains elusive. “I am afraid of what will happen in case Ibrahim doesn’t have access to quality education and support.”
Shahd and her family lived in Al Hawash village, in the countryside of Hama city, before the war began in 2011. Her father, Ahmed (a pseudonym), worked and had enough income to provide for the family. Ahmed told us that in 2013, when Shahd was only 2, their neighborhood was attacked with a barrel bomb falling just 30 meters from their home. Shahd was asleep at the time and a fragment came close to her head, causing hearing loss and weakening her auditory nerve, her father told us.
The war meant Ahmed lost his job and the family lost their home. Since leaving Al Hawash, the family has been displaced multiple times as they were forced to flee the fighting. Health workers told Shahd’s parents that she needed a cochlear implant to improve her hearing, but the family couldn’t afford it.
Now Shahd is 12 and has a hearing disability. Ahmed said he and his wife fear for Shahd’s safety because she cannot hear airstrikes. “My wife and I keep an eye on her all the time and if we hear an attack, we have to physically go and grab her to bring her with us to the shelter,” he said.
The sudden attacks and need to flee has psychologically affected Shahd more than her five siblings. Her father described her reactions:
Whenever there was an airstrike, the children became terrified, and we started yelling and trying to run to the shelters and when she saw us in that situation, she started to cry. Now whenever there is something unexpected, even if someone rushes into the house, she starts to cry.
Because the war has spanned nearly all of Shahd’s young life, she has never attended school and has had little opportunity to learn sign language while attending informal classes provided by a humanitarian organization. According to Ahmed, her lack of education and ongoing support has harmed her development and mental health:
It’s very hard on her; she is growing up and wants to be able to explain herself and say what she feels or needs. We do not understand what she needs most of the time. Not even other children her age understand her. She then gets angry and frustrated because we do not know what she needs or wants.
When Human Rights Watch first interviewed Ahmed in October 2020, the family was living in a Kafar Houm camp for internally displaced people in northwest Syria, where they struggled to access health care, hearing aid, and education for Shahd. When Human Rights Watch interviewed Ahmed in June 2022, after his family had moved to Azaz, Aleppo, Shahd had started going to her brother’s school once a week “just to pass time.” He said she is not learning anything due to a lack of access to trained teachers, and he fears she will grow up without an education.
Shahd is happy in the company of her brothers, but feels isolated from other children, unable to attend school and access services that would support her express herself and understand others. “It has impacted her social life,” said Ahmed. “You see her isolated from other children. She doesn’t mingle with children her age; she doesn’t play with them.”
Shahd likes to draw and she is good at other subjects, too. “She is brilliant: she does arithmetic operations, her handwriting is excellent, and she is a good painter,” her father says.
“I hope that children [with disabilities] receive the attention they need, that humanitarian organizations [are able to] support children,” he continued. “[Children] are the builders of our future.”
Ghaith is 13 years old and has a visual disability. He, his mother, and his two siblings have been forced to flee their home in Idlib governorate numerous times because of the war. However, the family finally returned home at the time of the interview in June 2022. His mother has been the breadwinner since his father was detained in April 2012.
Ghaith was the only child with a disability included in the research who was attending school. But it wasn’t easy. Fleeing attacks multiple times and displacement made it difficult for him to stay in school. “Every time we had to flee the area, he would lose most of the [school] year, sometimes up to 9 or 10 months, and then we have to start from zero,” his mother said.
The disruption to Ghaith’s education is something experienced by many Syrian children. But Ghaith has experienced other barriers on the basis of his disability. According to the family, he was often misunderstood, rejected, or bullied by his peers and even teachers. But his mother never gave up fighting for her son. When teachers in one school suggested putting Ghaith in a lower grade with younger children, she refused. “My child is not stupid—he is a smart boy—but this is the problem we are facing,” she said.
Ghaith also expressed his sadness about this:
The teacher pushed me to a lower grade because of my writing, but I do not see well [enough] to be able to write [quickly]. I don’t want them to keep pushing me to a lower grade; I want to stay in my class. They should have patience and give me more time to write instead.
His mother told Human Rights Watch his current school is “more accepting” and has found ways to support Ghaith, including by assigning a person to write for him and relying on oral communication to help him learn. Ghaith’s favorite subjects are math and Arabic, and he hopes to be an Arabic teacher, like his father, one day.
His mother is proud of Ghaith’s success but remains concerned about his future:
He has excellent marks in orals; he is hard-working and memorizes a lot….
I just hope [his teachers] can help him finish his studies. I don’t want to waste his future because he has a visual disability. If Ghaith gets the support he needs, his future will change drastically. First of all, he can continue his education and be more empowered and independent. He won’t feel weak among his friends. Now he feels he is different from others; he feels more inferior.
Ghaith’s disability has made him a target for bullying, both at school and at a local mosque. The children’s harassment of her son is difficult for his mother to bear:
The hardest thing is witnessing the bullying by other children. He also stopped going to the mosque because of [the bullying]. They point out that he is wearing glasses and say words that a child cannot bear. The same thing happens at school as well.
When asked what he wants to change for him and other children with disabilities in Syria, Ghaith said an end to bullying by his community. “[People] must not bully the others, [including] those who are blind.”