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In the face of crisis, joining hands to lead the way

On this International Workers' Day, my thoughts and good wishes go to all who are mobilising to defend workers’ rights to decent working conditions, with safe and inclusive workplaces that pay a decent wage. Starting with a struggle for the eight-hour work day, International Workers’ Day expresses a realisation of the need for solidarity to achieve the dream of a more equitable society. Solidarity is needed in individual workplaces, for individual professions or trades, and in individual countries. But it is equally fundamental across all such boundaries, and internationally.

As I am writing these words, the pictures in my newsfeed show me diplomatic staff and foreign nationals from wealthy countries being airlifted from Khartoum, and arriving to safety in a state of shock and disbelief at what they have just experienced. I know, from scattered reports, that tens of thousands of Sudanese are trying to escape, by bus or on foot, to neighbouring countries that are unsafe and already in a state of protracted emergency. While yet others have no means to move, and nowhere to go. There appears to be no intention from any side to respect humanitarian law and obviously no plans to protect persons with disabilities. Targeting vulnerability is yet again being used as a deliberate military strategy: destroying hospitals and civilian infrastructure, cutting off vital supplies, using entire populations as hostages for negotiations. And I am afraid that just as Afghanistan, Syria or Pakistan have been quickly forgotten, some fresh events from some other part of the world will soon capture the headlines.

These past months, as every Syrian in the diaspora, I have been working against the clock to find solutions to all who have reached out to me after the earthquakes, as well as trying myself to reach friends, relatives and colleagues from the disability movement to see how I can support them. Syria and affected regions in Turkey are no longer in the news, but the crisis is still ongoing. Now, I am receiving desperate calls from friends and colleagues in Sudan, and doing my best to provide useful advice or contacts for their situation. I am doing my very best as an individual, I will continue to do so, and I believe that person-to-person solidarity does serve a purpose. Several years ago, when I escaped from the intense fighting in Aleppo that I had been caught in, I depended entirely on the immense courage and generosity of both friends and complete strangers to survive. There was no organisation on the ground that could have saved me. At the same time, I am aware of how little I can do as an individual with limited means.

In the disability rights movement, we often talk of the need to move away from a “charity” approach to disability, to instead adopt a rights-based social understanding, where we can address the structural barriers that we face in every situation of our daily lives. I think that the same applies to terrible crises like Syria or Sudan. Individual solidarity and humanitarian action are necessary, but our efforts need to be directed towards the structures and dysfunctional values that create such crises in the first place.

For Sudan, or any other crisis, I am convinced that we have no option except to choose a path of international solidarity. The alternative would be to admit that the most ruthless and least responsible among us will continue to drive destruction, until they have burned the very soil on which they stand, until there is nobody left to terrorise and they themselves have nowhere left to go. Facing challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and famine, it is true that some countries are affected before others, and money can still buy scarce food supplies on global markets, but ultimately, no border walls – however high or well-fortified - will keep out the hurricanes, locust swarms or heatwaves.

The recent disasters and calamities we have witnessed – such as the floods in Pakistan, the earthquakes in Turkey and Syria, the ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa, or the new conflict that has broken out in Sudan – are of a scale that is difficult to comprehend. It is easy to get overwhelmed or indifferent at headlines telling of unimaginable suffering, especially when events are happening in a far-off land, to people who look or dress differently from ourselves. But the truth is that none of these crises is going to disappear of its own accord. On the contrary, for every crisis we see today, there are dozens waiting to erupt, while every new disaster will bring its sisters and cousins to the party.

To stop this negative spiral, the first step is prevention, and work with the root causes. The second is preparedness, with measures such as disaster-resilient infrastructure, stocks of emergency supplies, early warning systems or evacuation plans. The third is rapid and adequate disaster response – unnecessary delays or supplying relief that only covers a fraction of the needs will undermine trust and increase the risk of triggering additional layers of crisis. The fourth is real recovery, and avoiding to reproduce the structures that led to disaster in the first place, because if we do not “build back better”, we will merely be setting the stage for a new series of crises.

None of this is easy, and acting does require efforts, courage, persistence and intelligence. But preventing disasters comes with much lower costs, than simply looking the other way when the seemingly inevitable happens – certainly for the most vulnerable, to start with, but also for the entire human family, in the long run.

At every step, persons with disabilities need to play a central role and lead the way. Not because our lives are worth more than any other person, but because by creating disability-inclusive societies, we are protecting every other ‘vulnerable’ and marginalised group, and the world can become a place where everyone can feel safe and have the opportunity to live a good life. Persons with disabilities are the ‘canaries in the coal mine’, who perceive any trace of imbalance and dysfunctionality before it has reached a level where it becomes dangerous to others. We have learned, the hard way, that every human being is ultimately dependent on the goodwill and support of others. As persons with disabilities, we have never had the option of using hard elbows to battle our way to “success” and a seat at the tables where the powers that be decide on the fate of the planet.

Today, on this first day of May 2023, I am more convinced than ever, that the values that underpin the disability movement, built on caring, solidarity and the belief in the intrinsic dignity and worth of every human being, are also the values on which our collective future depends.


Chavia Ali

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