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Voices from the Movement: Nujeen Mustafa on Ensuring Our COVID-19 Response Recognizes the Needs of Refugees with Disabilities

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Emina Ćerimović, Senior Disability Rights Researcher, Human Rights Watch and Nujeen Mustafa at SCSC's 2019 Global Symposium.
April 14, 2020

Nujeen Mustafa is an inspiring young woman who fled the Syrian Civil War at age 16 and traveled 5,600 km by wheelchair with her sister Nisreen, before resettling in Germany. Nujeen has since become an ardent advocate and activist in the field of refugee and disability rights, co-authoring two books recounting her experiences. In 2019, she became the first woman with a disability to address the United Nations Security Council. 

Nujeen has been outspoken about inadequate policy support for disabled persons and highlighted the day-to-day challenges that refugees face, including in host nations that are often lauded for their welcoming and inclusive policies towards refugees. Nujeen and Nisreen spoke at our 2019 Global Symposium, highlighting the importance of belonging in understanding the refugee crisis and the acute challenges of refugees with disabilities.

We are honoured to share Nujeen’s op-ed for Euronews, where she shares her first-hand experience, calling attention to the indignities and health risks that people with disabilities face in refugee camps and the urgent need for change.

Public health experts say that the main way to protect yourself from COVID-19 is to socially distance yourself from others, isolate those who become ill and wash your hands frequently with soap and water. In camps for internally displaced people or refugees, where so many people seek shelter and protection in armed conflicts or humanitarian crises, this is nearly impossible. Few can afford soap, clean water is rare and social distancing unrealistic. Trust me, I know.

I also know first-hand that it’s even more difficult for people like me: people with disabilities.

In 2015, I arrived in a refugee camp on the island of Lesbos in Greece after fleeing the war in Syria. I couldn’t get water to wash my hands; the tap was just too high for someone in a wheelchair. The toilets weren’t accessible either. Some days, I had to hold my bladder for hours to avoid having to use a toilet.

A year later, I met some Human Rights Watch researchers who were documenting the situation for refugees, asylum seekers, and migrants with disabilities in refugee camps in Greece. They told me about Ali, a 22-year-old asylum seeker from Afghanistan. For two months, the only place where he could take a bath was in the sea, simply because the few showers in the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos were not accessible to him or other wheelchair users like him. As these places have become even more overcrowded, with Moria currently holding more than 19,000 people in a place designed for fewer than 3,000, the situation has only grown worse.

Read more at Euronews.