A summer afternoon in Tripoli, Lebanon. Handicap International’s team is standing patiently outside a small mobile phone store. Mohammad, social worker, and Fadia, physiotherapist, are waiting for Ayman. A few minutes later, a man sitting in a wheelchair appears at the end of the street and joins them.
Despite his disability and his refugee status, Ayman has successfully set up a business and started a new life in Tripoli. But it hasn’t been easy.
“When the conflict broke out in Syria, the situation in my town quickly deteriorated,” he explains. “One day, as I was going to the supermarket, someone shot me for no reason. The bullet hit my spine and I was rushed to the hospital. I stayed there for thirty hours.”
“At first, the doctors told me I would get better with physiotherapy care and some rest. But as the days turned into months, I realised that they were wrong.”
“It took me a year to understand that I would never walk again. That’s when I decided to leave Syria. I’m very independent and I couldn’t stand the idea of being a burden to my family, even if they didn’t see it like that. So I took the road to Lebanon.”
A chance encounter
Once he crossed the border, Ayman was admitted to a public hospital for rehabilitation. That’s where he met Mohammad, another Syrian who had also just arrived. Like him, Mohammad had been hit by a bullet while he was walking around his neighbourhood. The two men soon became friends
Mohammad remembers with a smile. “At first, we used to talk about our injuries and the rehabilitation exercises. But as time passed, we became like two brothers from different parents. When one of us needed support, the other was always there for him. We even competed with each other during our physiotherapy sessions. The winner was the one who did his exercises the best.”
A few months later, Ayman, Mohammad and other Syrian refugees with disabilities decided to find some accommodation together when they left the hospital. “From there on, everything became much harder,” admits Ayman.
The start of something new
Despite the challenges ahead, the two men never gave up hope. They thought about the best to make up for the lives they had left behind in Syria, where Mohammad was an electrician and Ayman was an electronics engineer. The two Syrians decided to pool their skills and set up their own business.
“To start with, I tried to look for work,” explains Ayman. “But no one wanted to hire a refugee with disabilities. So I thought that setting up my own company would be the best way to earn a living.”
The road was long and the two men had to overcome countless obstacles. But nothing seemed to stop them. They even rebuilt an exercise bicycle with parts of a washing machine to continue their physiotherapy sessions at home. Ayman got married, then Mohammad, and both started families.
Their store is now very popular in their neighbourhood. Ayman deals with the business side of things, while Mohammad does phone maintenance.
Yes we can!
Once the business was up and running, Ayman decided to get more involved in Handicap International’s work.
“I really believe you can do anything,” he says. “I always think of Barack Obama’s ‘Yes we can’.”
“I try to get the message across to people: I want to make sure people with disabilities and refugees are not left behind by society. I also want to change the way people see us, because we don’t need pity. We’re like everyone else: we have hope and dignity.”
“I always look to the future and by telling people my story, that’s what I try to get across. We aren’t people with special needs, we’re just individuals with special challenges.”
While Ayman volunteers for Handicap International, Mohammad is planning to build a rehabilitation room in his garden, using recycled materials.
Driven by their ambitions and their friendship, nothing seems to stop the two men.