As uncertainty hovers over the Middle East, philanthropist Jay Snyder and professor Valerie Karr, PhD, brought together young people from the United States and Syria for a dynamic cultural exchange that generated an unlikely outcome.
Karr teaches at Adelphi University, and champions global disability rights, while Snyder founded the Open Hands Initiative, a non-profit venture dedicated to promoting international peace.
Last year, during a visit to Syria’s capital city, Damascus, Karr headed a three-day summit for youth with physical and intellectual disabilities. Despite language and cultural differences, the groups collaborated to produce Silver Scorpion, a comic book about a superhero who has a physical disability. The publication is available in both Arabic and English. Snyder and Karr spoke with ABILITY’s Chet Cooper about their innovative project.
Chet Cooper: How did the Open Hands Initiative (OHI) get started?
Jay Snyder: My wife, Tracy, and I felt for a long time that we should create opportunities for people-to-people diplomacy. That feeling was reinforced by a speech President Obama gave about reaching out with an open hand to the Arab world.
Cooper: Was that the first time a politician’s speech had moved you to take action?
Snyder: No. President Clinton had made some remarks about public diplomacy, and about the HIV/AIDS pandemic, that caused us to become involved in helping in that arena. So we got involved with research projects, trying to help find ways to end that terrible disease.
Cooper: The Open Hands Initiative is an internally funded non-profit?
Snyder: It is. We’re very fortunate that way. The goals of OHI are specific, and our organization has the resources necessary to stick around as long as needed to accomplish those goals. At the moment, OHI is composed of three major initiatives: programs that deal with art, healthcare, and people who have disabilities.
Cooper: Valerie, how did you hear about OHI?
Valerie Karr: We were connected thanks to my involvement with the Shafallah Center, which caters to children who have special needs. About five years ago, the center started working in Qatar, through the firm Brown Lloyd James, to help organize a forum that brought together first ladies and grassroots organizations from around the world. Everyone at that forum shared the goal of working on disability movements and trends with Hassan Ali Bin Ali, the chairman of the center. Jay was eager to create OHI’s first project, but he wasn’t sure of the best way to initiate a dialogue between America and the Middle East. We targeted Syria first because, geopolitically, it’s right in the center of the region bordered by Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq. It’s also a country that has proven to be very challenging for American diplomacy efforts. So we began by asking ourselves, “What are some common interests, between our two countries, on the person-to-person level?”
Cooper: And you found the answer?
Karr: Religion and culture aside, every society loves its children. Because of the work I do promoting the rights of people with disabilities we arrived at focusing on children with disabilities as a strong basis for a diplomatic effort. Disability is a transcendent issue. It affects everyone in every country, and can be an important starting point for cooperation.
Cooper: Tell me about your experience working with the people of Syria.
Snyder: First of all, Dr. Karr was invaluable. She went to Syria about a year ago as part of the ground team, helping to interview and choose the partners. Those partners were then put together in groups. We had people with all types of disabilities involved in this mission. Unfortunately, the situation in Syria since our first visit has become tragic. I wish the people of Syria a quick and peaceful resolution to their crisis.
[NOTE: At this writing, more than a thousand people have died in Syria since mid-March, according to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Protesters continue to call for political reforms and the reinstatement of civil rights, as well as for an end to the state of emergency that has been in place since 1963.]
Cooper: The result of the summit in Syria is that you developed a comic book? How did that happen?
Snyder: In May 2010 my staff came to me and said we have a unique opportunity to create something new and lasting in the Middle East. It would be an opportunity for our country to engage in an area in which the US has not had a lot of experience: relations with Syria.
We saw a way, through engagement with disability, to work in a specific area where there is commonality between our nations. As Dr. Karr indicated, everyone knows somebody, maybe someone in his or her own family, who has some form of disability. So we knew we had an underlying common theme: There’s little difference between somebody who’s dealing with a certain type of disability in the Middle East, and someone who’s dealing with that same condition in Asia or America or anywhere in the world. Disability is an arena that transcends politics, religion and policy.
Cooper: Was creating a comic book always a part of the plan for you, Valerie?
Karr: No, it wasn’t. The comic book concept actually came out of our discussions. We collaborated with Liquid Comics, which specializes in cross-cultural superheroes.
The Silver Scorpion character itself came from Jay. He was an avid comic-book collector in his youth, and that medium satisfied our requirement for a vehicle that could be easily disseminated. Because comic books are a visual medium, even an audience with a low literacy rate can follow the story through pictures.
A comic book can connect with readers in rural areas, where there may only be one print book for the village, and also in urban areas like those throughout the United States. Comic books are extremely popular here, and their stories can be enjoyed on iPads, in movies and in video games.
Cooper: At what point in the process was the Silver Scorpion character developed?
Karr: I put out a call for participation to various youth networks here in the United States—the Victor Pineda Foundation and The World Inclusion Summit, for example—and tried to get the message of our project out to any young member who wanted to participate in this creative venture. We held a one-week summit in Syria, bringing young people together to see what they had in common, but we were also interested in learning about what differences they had, and what kinds of hardships they’d experienced. Instead of just discussing disability, we really wanted to create an awareness-raising tool through the development of the comic book.
Snyder: Dr. Karr led that summit. A lot of people thought it would be impossible to pull off a summit of that magnitude: doing a nationwide search in another country and putting together the program in two-and-ahalf months. It was just extraordinary, what she managed to achieve. So the Silver Scorpion character and other characters, as well as their storylines, are collectively the product of the Ability Summit. Then Sharad Devarajan, from Liquid Comics, took the ideas and created the comic book.
I snuck into the back of the room, on occasion, and tried to be as inconspicuous as possible. I was truly intrigued by what was being created. I think a great deal of the success of this project stems from the fact that the young advocates were so enthusiastic in communicating with each other. They taught me more than I taught them. This process was one of the most special times of my life.
Karr: We even gave the participants “comic-book homework,” sending them home with other comic books so they would be thinking about character development and so on. During the summit, we talked about humanrights issues, we talked about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and we allowed these young Syrians and Americans to come together and share their different experiences. And through those experiences, they came up with the first Arab superhero with a disability: Silver Scorpion.
Cooper: So youth with disabilities created this character?
Karr: Yes, and remember that these kids did not all speak the same language. They had different cultures and different beliefs. I was very worried about that in the beginning. How are we going to get them to open up? What if they don’t speak to each other? What if they’re very quiet or timid around each other?
I had activities to break the ice, but we didn’t need them. Within five minutes these kids were talking. We had 22 participants, we had translators who were the same age as the kids, and we had youth volunteers. We even had girls signing to each other in Arabic and American Sign Language (ASL), who began learning each other’s signs.
Cooper: Was it a challenge to be working with different sign languages, as well as connecting hearing and nonhearing participants?
Karr: We had two sign-language interpreters—one Arabic sign-language interpreter and one ASL interpreter— so the young people could facilitate between our lectures and activities very well.
We had a lot of down time. We also had a lot of participatory activities, for which people were broken into small groups. Immediately a Syrian girl who signed and an American girl who signed went into the same group, so they could communicate with each other. By the end of the summit, we often saw them talking to each other from across the room.
Cooper: Where did all the great artwork come from for this project?
Karr: We held different creative sessions throughout the summit. One session was called “How to Create a Superhero.” We asked the participants, “What are the characteristics of a superhero? What would a superhero be for you?” Many young people in that situation would say, “Oh, she can fly. Or he can break through walls.” But none of the kids on our project said those things. They were more interested in a hero who could change hearts and minds. They talked about deeper issues like the power to make people feel empathy.
Cooper: Nice.Can Silver Scorpion shoot a bolt of empathy into someone?
Karr: (laughs) No. As a character, we use Silver Scorpion to focus on life after an acquired disability. He is injured in an explosion and becomes an amputee, unable to walk. He goes through a very low moment in the first book: The explosion that results in him becoming an amputee also kills his best friend. Throughout the whole process, the kids were very clear that Silver Scorpion should not use his power to heal his own disability.
Then we started asking questions like, “How do you create a super villain? What is a truly evil person? What is that archetype? What is a superhero’s archetype?” At the end of the process, these kids came up with four different characters and ideas. In Silver Scorpion, you can see a lot of their ideas, as well as a lot of their experiences with discrimination, throughout the story. There were so many common stories discussed among young people with disabilities in both cultures: the feeling of being stared at or excluded, the experience of being mocked in school, and the Silver Scorpion has these same experiences.
Cooper: Do you have a plan for where the series is going next? Do you think you can get it into school systems?
In the second comic book, coming out soon, Silver Scorpion comes to an acceptance of who he is, starts to adjust to his new abilities, and becomes proud of them. All of the young people on our team talked about that feeling. They’re proud of their abilities. They don’t dwell on their disabilities as being life-changing, life-altering, horrible things. They’d rather think about their strengths.
Snyder: We want to expand the comic’s reach in the Middle East, and we very much want to do some unique distribution here in the US. Both cultures can learn from what has been created here. We wanted the story to be resonant to people in their language, so there’s an Arabic version of the comic and an English version.
Our goal is to present the project at the United Nations (UN) conference on disabilities. I served as a public delegate there 11 years ago, and I have always had a special place in my heart for the UN. I think it’s an amazing organization that’s done incredible work.
Our goal is to create a cross-cultural guidebook for implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities, written both in Arabic and in English. We want to help facilitate and expedite their processes of implementation. As a non-governmental organization, we’re thrilled to do anything we can.
Cooper: So this is a continuing story?
Karr: Yes. Originally, we’d thought we would create six different heroes, but we want to spend time giving Bashir, our Silver Scorpion hero, some character development. He needs to come out on the other side of his situation.
We showed a digital film version of Silver Scorpion in the Damascus Opera House and the hall was packed. Over 1,200 Syrian citizens came to see what we’d been doing. They were very interested in this new concept, and specifically in the collaboration between Syrians and Americans. It was a breakthrough moment, I think. We could all talk openly about disability. There was even a press conference afterwards. We’re really looking forward to doing a US launch sometime in the fall.
Cooper: What were your thoughts about the dynamics on the ground in Syria after your visit?
Karr: I’m certainly aware of what’s happening on the ground in Syria. The whole point of our program, though, was to improve person-to-person understanding, so that more goodwill exists between our countries. That goodwill, at the citizen level, can really survive and thrive despite policy differences.
The US government is pushing a hard line against Syria right now, in the wake of the uprisings there, but I hope the foundation we built will endure. I hope Syrians looked at us and saw Americans coming in not to take something, not to damage something, but just to say, “We’re here, we’re open to working, and we find value in working with you. Look at what we’ve created together.” I think that relationship will last.
Cooper: Is there anything about the Open Hands Initiative you’d particularly like people to remember?
Snyder: Extraordinary youth, given the right opportunities, can create extraordinary things. We bring them together, put their ideas and their energy into a mixing pot, and the most amazing things come out of that process. They’ve changed my life more than I’ve changed theirs.
Cooper: How do you think the people of Syria, and people of the Middle East in general, are responding to the message of this project?
Karr: In Syria, our concentration was on raising awareness that people with disabilities can have meaningful lives, and that people with disabilities can be a part of the community. We went out to dinner every night with all of the kids. We didn’t want to be insulated in a hotel. We wanted those kids out in the open, being seen.
People often came up to us and said things like, “I have a child with a disability. Do you know where I could get services for him?” We’d hear, “You guys are out! I didn’t know that we could do this.” That’s the sort of consciousness-raising that happens through direct experience, and I think it can also be achieved through exposure to the comic book. Silver Scorpion is one of the first superheroes ever to be presented in Syria. I hope young readers consider this hero and not see his disability; Jay and many other people have seen disability as a sort of common talking point to work around. I hope they just say, “Wow, he’s really cool!”
Someday you will either know someone with a disability, or you yourself will be affected by a disability. During one of our summits here in Washington, DC, we found that only first-hand experience can effectively convey what the disability experience is like. But Silver Scorpion also is a strong tool to send this message. It’s mainstreaming disability in a cultural way and, at the same time, reflecting the cultural values of the Arab and Muslim world. I’m looking forward to Silver Scorpion becoming bigger. We’re just getting started.