The Fifth Annual Shafallah Forum focused on crisis, conflict and disability, and attracted the First Spouses of more than a dozen world leaders, along with roughly 250 attendees from around the world. The event was hosted by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned in Qatar at the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs.
Coming on the heels of such disasters as the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan last spring, famine in the Horn of Africa and floods in the Philippines, along with the continuing reconstruction efforts in Haiti, the Shafallah Forum highlighted not only the strain these events have placed on individuals and societies, but also the increased severity these conditions place on people with disabilities.
Hassan Ali Bin Ali, chairman of the Shafallah Center, opened the forum along with Ron McCallum, chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Louise Aubin, professor and deputy director of the International Protection for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
In his welcoming remarks, Ali Bin Ali called on those countries that have not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to do so as a means to better cope with natural disasters.
“Although we have made long strides in the advancement of the rights of the disabled,” he noted, “There is still much more we can do.”
In the forum’s first panel discussion, “Refugees with Disabilities,” Teymoor Nabili, an anchor for Al Jazeera, moderated a discussion examining the conditions in refugee camps and evaluating how technology and resources can promote a more inclusive environment, equal opportunities and community independence.
The panel was chaired by Sarah Costa, PhD, executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. She stressed registration as the first step in identifying and addressing conditions that affect refugees with disabilities, urging that measures be adopted: “We need to start identifying the people with disabilities at the time of refugee registration, and break it down on the basis of age, gender and profile of disability.” She also reinforced the notion that “disability is not inability.”
This year’s forum addresses the intersection of crisis, conflict and disability as a means to bring attention to the “double discrimination” affecting refugees with disabilities. Francesca Bonelli of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and Scholastica Nasinyama of InterAid, suggested that refugees with disabilities face multiple challenges, including being shunned by their communities. They also lack infrastructure, migratory status, permanent residence, basic sanitation, and adequate living conditions that enable their mobility.
In Uganda in particular, decades of civil war have created more than 160,000 refugees, according to government figures cited by Yusrah Nagujja, disability officer of the Refugee Law.
She estimates that 2000 of Uganda’s refugees have disabilities, and cautioned that these figures have likely been underreported. On top of that, many Ugandans have fled into neighboring countries following violence spurred by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Famine in East Africa has exasperated these conditions. She called for research and data, along with funding to promote economic empowerment, resources and job skills.
The second panel shifted the focus to persons with disabilities amongst the displaced refugee communities in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Five years into the global economic crisis, with stagnant recovery amongst donor countries, organizations operating within the Occupied Territories face a shrinking pool of funds. This, coupled with “donor fatigue,” means fewer resources to address the conditions of people with disabilities in the Palestinian Territories.
Rana Al Zawawi and Hasan Husein of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency compared their struggles working with Palestinians with disabilities, both as refugees outside the Palestinian Territories and within the Gaza Strip, respectively. As a Palestinian with disability living in the Gaza Strip, Osama Abu Safer shared his experiences in coping with a Gaza that had been broadly destroyed during the 2009 Israeli bombardment.
During plenary remarks at the day’s luncheon, Cherie Blair, co-chair of the Shafallah Center and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, acknowledged the center’s growth and expansion since the forum’s 2006 inception.
Following Blair’s plenary remarks, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos lauded Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and the state of Qatar for their efforts to alleviate the plight of those with disabilities around the world. Offering a figure from the recent natural disasters in the Philippines, Amos highlighted that “only 120 out of 1256 people—or 10 percent of people with disabilities had shelter in hard hit areas after the Philippine floods.” Finding ways to manage and deal with these issues is an important matter of discussion at this year’s forum.
On the second day, panelists discussed inclusion efforts for women, children and minorities the world over— from refugee camps in Kenya to the flood plains of Pakistan. And disability experts addressed the need for poverty-reduction strategies and independence amid a period of profound global economic downturn.
In a discussion on community-based efforts to aid persons with disabilities, Rooshey Hasnain, project director of the University of Illinois at Chicago, called on the international community to take proactive steps in crisis management, instead of addressing disasters in an ad hoc manner. Referencing figures from Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005, Hasnain cited that nearly “25 percent of the African-Americans who were affected by the storm’s destruction were disabled.”
However, she noted that even in the face of total chaos, natural disasters could bring about positive change. After an earthquake struck Izmit, Turkey, in August 1999, the Turkish community responded to its lack of mental-health services—one mental health specialist for every 100,000 citizens and a mere 50 child physiotherapists in the totality of Anatolia—by expanding services to those with developmental disabilities. Hasnain stated that although it took a natural disaster to spur change, the Izmit earthquake was a teachable moment for the Turkish people.
Not all natural disasters have brought reform in affected countries. Though both Bangladesh and Pakistan have suffered heavy flooding in the last several years, they were still ill prepared to meet the needs of more recent flood victims, let alone the needs of those with disabilities. Nazmul Bari, director of the Center for Disability in Development, cited the World Risk Report for 2011, which listed Bangladesh as the second riskiest country for investment in the South Asia-Pacific region, because 20 percent to 68 percent of the country is prone to flooding.
“Large-scale flooding causes major accessibility issues for persons with disabilities,” said Ghulam Nabi Nizamani, CEO of the Pakistan Disabled Peoples’ Organization. He is from Baluchistan, a semi-arid province in southeastern Pakistan that receives minimal amounts of rain annually, overwhelming the region when torrential rains fell for five hours and caused severe flooding.
Devon Cone, a protection officer with Refugee Point, shared her experience of dealing with discrimination at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya, one the largest refugee camps in the world with hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalis.
Refugees with disabilities, specifically children, face harassment from fellow refugees who are not wellversed in dealing with persons with disabilities. In Dadaab, Refugee Point works for inclusive processes of involving the disability community in outreach, education and planning. She has found counseling intervention the most efficient and direct way to improve the livelihoods of those with disabilities and their families. “Community support structures are an effective form” of raising the quality of life for those doubly discriminated against in refugee camps.
“At-risk women, children and minorities with disabilities, whether displaced by natural disaster or conflict, compete with other victims or refugees for goods and services and as a consequence, suffer two-fold,” said Cone. She highlighted that in an effort to ensure the safety of children with disabilities in Dabaab, several women came together to care for these children while their parents sought food, services and treatment.
Panelists called for local, community-based solutions to improve the conditions of persons with disabilities that are proactive, not reactive, as well as cooperative and direct, so as to create more efficient and effective ways of addressing the many issues faced by those with disabilities, whether in cities or refugee camps.
On day three, Ali Bin Ali held an international press conference, calling for inclusion, implementation and reaffirmation of “rights-based frameworks” in response to emergency and post-conflict scenarios.
He announced the creation of One Billion Strong, an international NGO focusing on elevating the status of persons with disabilities. He defined the objectives of the organization as petitioning to “support the true implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities through global awareness-raising of disability issues and in-country development programs at the community level.”
He summarized the forum’s three main recommendations on ways to address disability in crisis and conflict scenarios:
- First, disability must be an integral part of all emergency and humanitarian response before and after a crisis hits, through sustainable development programs.
- Second, there is an urgent need for disability to be taken into consideration throughout all phases of humanitarian assistance. All humanitarian actors should ensure that emergency preparedness, response and recovery programs are inclusive, rights-based and respond to the needs of persons with disabilities.
- Third and lastly, the principles in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities should underpin all humanitarian efforts and international protection frameworks, particularly Article 11 – calling on governments to develop National Action Plans or Policies, which identify strategic actions, priorities and resources, and determine responsibilities and timeframes at the national level.
At a gala dinner, HRH Prince Mired Bin Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan praised Her Highness and Ali Bin Ali for taking “bold steps” with their formation of the One Billion Strong organization, and reaffirmed bi-lateral cooperation on elevating disability issues. Rima Salah, deputy executive director of UNICEF, lauded the state of Qatar for signing and ratifying the CRPD and the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.
Ali Bin Ali called on the forum’s attendees to sign the Shafallah Declaration on Crisis, Conflict and Disability. By endorsing this declaration, he explained, “We will be encouraging adoption by the global community of the UN-CRPD, and we will be establishing a concrete framework through which to begin addressing the rights and conditions of people with disabilities. Through ratification of the UN-CRPD—specifically resolutions that support Article 11—we will lift the status of the one billion persons living with disabilities, of which 800 million live in poverty, 6.5 million of them being refugees or displaced.”
Chet Cooper, editor-in-chief of ABILITY Magazine, sat down with the chairman of the Shafallah Center after his press conference to get more specifics on the new initiative.
Chet Cooper: Who came up with the idea of One Billion Strong?
Hassan Ali Bin Ali: It’s an initiative which came from the last forum where Her Highness asked all the first ladies from around the world: What can we do globally for the disabled? The first ladies can help us because they are near the leaders, and can talk to them about issues that concern us. So we’ve created an organization called One Billion Strong. We took the name from the World Health Report of 2011, which estimates that there are more than a billion disabled people in the world. We’ve registered the name in Geneva, and we’re going to have our offices in London, because you can move towards Europe and the U.S. easily. First ladies can share what they’ve been doing and their findings, when they are attending the United Nations sessions or the Shaffallah Forum. That’s the idea.
Cooper: Do you have a mission statement yet?
Ali Bin Ali: No, because we’re just getting started. We wanted to create awareness concerning refugee camps, in general, and to the appalling conditions in which people with a disability are living, specifically. I’m sure that you’ve seen the documentaries on Uganda and on the Palestinian camps. We really want to identify and address the problems. This is one of the missions of One Billion Strong.
Cooper: Was One Billion Strong your first choice for the name of the organization?
Ali Bin Ali: We considered a few names like D.A.R.E., but then we found out that there is a drug program with that name. Then someone else came up with For Me, Education For Me, Disability For Me, and that didn’t work either, because if you asked for support, you would have someone writing you a check that says, “It’s for me,” which was really funny. (laughs)
Then when the 2011 World Health Organization report came out, and said that there are more than one billion people with disabilities, someone came up with the idea: “Why don’t you call it One Billion Strong?”
Cooper: I just thought of a possible name! You can call it Citizens with Ability for Social Humanity, and they can make the check out to CASH.
Ali Bin Ali: (laughs) That would be funny. Ultimately, we went with One Billion Strong, and we are now working on a few programs. As I said, the first one is the refugee issue. We are drafting a mission statement, and we have a brochure.
Next we’ll focus on what we call the Signature Program. And because the rules of the Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities (CRPD) takes up five volumes, we condensed them into a manual that everyone could understand; next we’re going to translate it into 10 languages, including Mandarin, Japanese, and Braille, too, so that people who are blind will understand their rights under the Convention.
Cooper: Will the programs be web-based, so you can access the condensed version online.
Ali Bin Ali: Oh, yes.
Cooper: In your opening remarks you mentioned that you’re working with the first ladies of different countries; can you expand upon that?
Ali Bin Ali: Together, we’re looking at a range of humanitarian issues, like refugees or poverty. We will sit with the first ladies and help to prepare them. We can identify their need for training, and possibly bring their team to train here in the center, or a team from here could go and train their team where they live. We’ll talk about different issues. We’ll identify what sort of centers or establishment they need, and maybe we can build some units for them and give it to them to take care of.
Cooper: So you may work and partner with other NGOs within the different countries?
Ali Bin Ali: Definitely. The idea is to work with other NGOs. We’ll try to work with as many of these organizations as possible, so that we can make a difference in the lives of the one billion.
Cooper: Sometimes NGOs worry about working too close with other NGOs, because they fear losing funding to the other organization.
Ali Bin Ali: We don’t think in those terms. We want to sit with other NGOs and other organizations and determine how we can work together. Because sometimes one is working alone, and working together is more effective.
Cooper: I was thinking you could produce other forums like this, where you go to a region and there’s an invitation to regional NGOs. You could have One Billion Strong events in different parts of the world.
Ali Bin Ali: Someone did suggest: “Why don’t you have a forum in Paris, and one in London, and one in the next place… Their suggestions are well-taken, and we’re looking into them.
Cooper: How did you initially get involved with the Shafallah Center?
Ali Bin Ali: Eleven or 12 years ago, Her Highness asked me to chair the center, when it was a smaller organization.
Cooper: Did you have any connection to its mission?
Ali Bin Ali: I had been working with the Paralympics, and was the vice chairman for the Arab Federation of Sports for the Disabled. And perhaps someone advised Her Highness: “You have a man who has been working there, why don’t you use him?” I’m a businessman, but I do this as a volunteer.
When Her Highness first asked me to become involved, I thought it would take a few hours of my time, but now it takes all of my time. I’m lucky that I have a daughter to run my business, so I can focus on the Shafallah Center. I find it satisfying, and I’ve always believed in philanthropy.
In addition to our division for children with special needs, we now have the capacity to include children who are blind. We also partner with Best Buddies, and the top 10 genetic centers in the world.
Cooper: I was impressed by your opening remarks at the forum, where you said that countries need to take a more aggressive role after signing the CRPD.
Ali Bin Ali: You have 153 countries that have signed, but signing is not as important as ratification, so that the CRPD becomes a law. Today, Finland has cleared the way to sign, so we have 110 nations who have signed and ratified the Convention, which is great; it means that they have to implement what’s in it. Now Ron McCallum, of the CRPD, will have to start monitoring and reporting his findings to the United Nations.
Cooper: Do you know which country was first to sign?
Ali Bin Ali: I think maybe Cuba. China was one of the first, as well. As I mentioned, more than signing, it’s the spirit of implementing the rules that matters most.
We have to talk and create awareness and reach out to the media. For instance, in Beijing, after the Olympics, the Paralympics were two weeks later. But most of the media closed down and left; they didn’t show the Paralympics. They stripped it out, which is not right. They should have given the same opportunity to the disabled athletes as they did for the abled athletes.
Cooper: Don’t you think it’s a financial decision?
Ali Bin Ali: Possibly but BBC2, for instance, they televise the Paralympics. But NBC, which makes large profits off the Olympics and Paralympics, chooses not to televise it. This is what we want the media to cover. It is news. This is good news.
Cooper: Twenty-two years I’ve been doing this, and it’s still amazing how hard it is to get people to—unless they have a family member or they’re connected—
Ali Bin Ali: —with the issue. If they are, then they will do something. If not, they ignore it completely.
Cooper: As you adopt your goals for One Billion Strong, do you give much thought to employment issues?
Ali Bin Ali: We do. By law here, 2 percent of the employees of any organization in Qatar must be a person with a disability. Because when an abled person and a disabled person go for the same job, the interviewer thinks maybe the disabled should have the job, but he goes for the abled person because he is worried about accommodations, and he has to provide accessibility, the right atmosphere and environment. And this is where the problem is.
Businesses are obligated to hire the disabled, and obligated to modify their facilities to accommodate the disabled. We also want to put in place rulings so that new buildings and the pavement around them will allow access for people with physical disabilities.
Cooper: You’re just now writing your disability laws?
Ali Bin Ali: We are a young country.
Cooper: So are we. (laughs) Is there anything within the mission of One Billion Strong that explores employing people with disabilities?
Ali Bin Ali: We plan to address many employment issues. So far I’ve only mentioned two of our 10 programs, including the refugee camp and the signature program. A third is our program with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). As you know, the Paralympics are in London this year. We thought that we’d work with them, and give them cameras for the athletes who are traveling to the Olympics and Paralympics.
Tom Coyne: There are 168 countries participating, so we’ll give a camera to each one and they will monitor and show their experience as they go through the airports, on the plane, when they land in London.
Ali Bin Ali: Or the connection.
Coyne: In other words, under the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the right of travel is an issue, especially airports. So we will record that.
Ali Bin Ali: Yes, and then we’ll edit it and show their experiences, their disabilities, the funny side, the sad side.
Cooper: Human interest stories.
Coyne: We hope to show the documentary in London, and to use the Paralympic Games there to promote One Billion Strong. The IPC is not known for supporting disability generally. They provide elite sports, but Mr. Hassan, who is an honorary IPC board member, will use his position to spread awareness.
Cooper: Do you go to the UN regularly?
Ali Bin Ali: I go to the UN CRPD sessions. I go to Geneva, and the last time I was there, I met Ron McCallum and we talked about this initiative in general, and what we can do to make conditions better around the world.
You can issue a law or a convention, but you have to translate it on the ground. People in Africa, for instance, will say, “Fine, you are giving us these laws, but how are we going to carry them out? Who is going to implement them for us?” So we really have to start thinking of children and families involved, and get them the right care.
Zainab Sultan, of Northwestern University in Qatar, worked with Forum organizer Brown Lloyd James, to interview several speakers, here are two:
Director of the Office of Disability Integration and Coordination, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA)
Zainab Sultan: Is this your first time at the forum?
Marcie Roth: Actually I’ve been coming to the forum for the last four years, so this is my fifth time. When I came for the last forum and I was at the Souq (shopping area), my phone kept ringing and I did not want to take the call, as it’s expensive when you are on ‘roaming.’ But something in me told me to answer the call and when I did, it was the White House, asking me to come work for them. So Doha is a really special place for me.
Sultan: What is your impression of the forum?
Roth: The leadership of Hassan Ali Bin Ali and Her Highness Sheikha Moza has taken the world by storm. They not only focus on disability, but on the rights of persons with disabilities. Shafallah is a global pioneer because of the inclusive practices shared between communities. It is wonderful for us to keep this dialogue going. It gives us an opportunity to think differently about people with disabilities.
Sultan: How do you think the forum has evolved in the last five years?
Roth: It has been wonderful to watch each step of the way as Shafallah has brought together global leaders giving people a forum that no one else has. This is not happening in other parts of the world. Globally there are emergencies and disasters happening everywhere, and people with disabilities are left behind. There is no plan for them, and so communities are not prepared. Most people with disabilities won’t need medical care unless we fail to plan.
Sultan: I see that you are focused on integrating different communities, but given that the population of people with disabilities in Qatar is a smaller community, do you think that it will be overshadowed by other communities elsewhere?
Roth: I think it has been overshadowed in the past, but won’t be in the future. Forums like these will work as antidotes. The way to turn things around is by telling people what’s happening globally. I am excited that there are people who are expanding and are inclusive.
Sultan: The focus of this conference has been very international or on countries outside the region. What do you think about that?
Roth: In almost every corner of the world the notion of inclusive preparedness for people with disabilities is a new idea. Historically, we have thought “people with special needs” are vulnerable. It is not just that a disability makes you vulnerable, but it means that your community has a plan for you in a crisis.
Sultan: There has been a lot of talk about collaborating with media to bring out stories that could change perceptions about people with disabilities. But when there are new stories making headlines every day, how can we keep the focus of our audience strong, especially with donors?
Roth: We need to hold the attention of everybody, and everybody needs to plan this together. When we see media as a partner, and when we all work together, the whole is better than the sum of the parts.
ELIZABETH DA SILVA
Executive Director, Disabled People’s International
Sultan: Have you ever been to Qatar before?
Elizabeth Da Silva: This is my first time; Doha is beautiful. Personally, I think it is the most beautiful city in the world, and I’ve traveled all over.
Sultan: What makes Doha so beautiful?
Da Silva: It’s bright and has the snazziness of Los Angeles, and yet it’s so clean. It’s also calmer.
Sultan: What were some of the things that really stood out for you at the forum?
Da Silva: The Shafallah Forum has done a great job in inviting a diverse group of people, and yet everybody said the same things over and over again. They were talking about what was wrong and not focusing on recommendations. Many people placed too much emphasis on defining disability, and maybe we should try and look at cross disability.
Sultan: When there are new natural disasters or conflicts making the headlines every day, how do you avoid donor fatigue?
Da Silva: There is still a lot of focus on Haiti, but even after two years there is still a lot to be done. You want to help everybody, but you need to measure who has the structure and who doesn’t and what is the magnitude of help that is needed.
Sultan: What were some of the highlights for you at this year’s conference?
Da Silva: I think the theme was brilliant, and many people are not paying attention to this topic so it’s great to be hosting something like this. I have met with some amazing people from so many different parts of the world, including some people from Haiti whom I’ve always wanted to work with, but never had a chance to meet face-to-face.
Sultan: What changes or recommendations would you give for the next forum?
Da Silva: I think we should move on to the next phase where we can merge the UN’s Millennium Development Goals with the CRPD goals and work together. Creating partnerships at an international level is extremely important.