How an elevator began a revolution

There are moments in life that change everything, and nothing is the same afterwards. You will see such moments occurring in history, in literature, and individual lives. If you look back at your life you will probably also find an event, a realization, or a decision that had a profound impact on who you became. Today I would like to share my own story and the event that changed the course of my life.


Before 2000, I was like any young person with dreams; I wanted to go to university, meet the love of my life, and have a home full of children and pets in a quiet area by a lake. I worked hard, studying and at the same time dealing with challenges with my health. I was also spending a lot of time alone at home, as my social circle was quite small at the time. I saw university not only as the first step of a professional career and a future livelihood, but also as the opportunity to meet more people and to build my social network. The day came that I received confirmation of my acceptance at university to study law. It felt like this was the moment that things were going to lead to positive things for me. I was full of optimism and excitement - my dream was finally coming true! My hard work had paid off and I was going to university. For a while I forgot the pain of spending most of my childhood in hospital, moving between Syria and Spain, and the loneliness of living in a place with poor accessibility. I also forgot how difficult and challenging it was to finish school and pass the exams to get to university. I was ready to start a new life.


The day finally arrived that I was about to start my first day as a law student. My father had been to check the accessibility of the university faculty building and he said that there was an elevator, so I shouldn’t face too many challenges with accessibility. He also brought me my class schedule, so I knew when and where to go on my first day. With a lot of emotion and happiness, I went to attend my very first lecture – Constitutional Law – to this day I still remember the title. But when I arrived, I realized there were some steps at the entrance – two steps, followed by three more. I could see several lecture rooms on the ground floor, and the elevator to take me to the first floor. I needed help to get up the steps to the entrance, so some students kindly helped me to lift me up in my chair. When I entered the building I went towards the elevator, full of confidence, looking forward to my first class. When I tried to call the elevator, I realized that it was locked, no one was coming to unlock it for me, and my class was already starting. The students who had helped me into the building found me still waiting on the ground floor and asked me what was wrong. I explained that the elevator wasn’t working so I couldn’t go upstairs. They then lifted my chair and took me up to the first floor. I attended the lecture and listened to the teacher talking about the constitution and constitutional rights, thinking that I couldn’t go through this every day; it’s not what I had fought for. After the lecture I was talking with the other students and asking about the elevator – they said they had never seen it in use. This is how the journey started – with a quest to fix the elevator and to build a ramp up the entrance steps so that I could come to class independently and with dignity.


This journey became a battle. It took four months just to get an answer from the university about fixing the elevator, after having written letters and spoken to everyone from the university administration to the lift engineers. It seems that they were looking for any excuse and working harder to not fix it, than it would have taken to just get it fixed. Bureaucracy, corruption, and sheer lack of concern or interest were driving this attitude. Some of the reasons they gave me were due to security. They also stated that it wasn’t necessary for me to attend university in person, I could just study at home. All this just made me more determined to succeed. Finally, someone gave me a name – the most powerful person in the university with connections to the Syrian President. If I got his signature to fix the elevator, then it would happen. I was advised to approach him about this problem so I got his office hours so that I could go and speak to him without needing an appointment. This man could help you even if the rules weren’t on your side. He could make magic happen for the right people. He wasn’t even the head of the university, but with his connections he was the most powerful.


I was happy to receive this advice and thankful to the person who gave me it, promising to keep his name secret. By this time, it was 2001. A group of students who had been helping me during my time so far at university came with me to see this man. His office was up several floors and there was an elevator, but it was reserved for his use only, so I was prohibited from using it. I was glad to have the group of students with me because they helped lift me up the stairs to reach the office. When the man saw me enter the office, I could see that he was shocked. He had been speaking loudly but immediately fell silent. I started to explain the story of the problem with the accessibility of the university building. When I finished explaining, I was not sure how he would react. I hoped of course, that he would offer to help, but was also prepared for a new set of excuses and reasons for not fixing the problem.


I had tried not to raise my hopes, but I was completely unprepared for his answer. The man laughed at the idea of me wanting to study and become a lawyer. He said that people who can walk, run, and jump already struggle to study law, so how could I, who could not walk, expect to succeed in this field? Everyone in the room was laughing with him. I felt so humiliated, I just wanted to be anywhere but there. I returned home with a broken heart and entered a depression. I didn’t attend any lectures, take any exams, or meet my friends. I was so insulted and ashamed that I didn’t know how I could look any of these people in the eye again.


This lasted two months. I started thinking about what I would do with my life, as I couldn’t return to university. I thought of anything that I could do to avoid going back and seeing these people again, such as dropping out and opening a business, moving to a new city, or going back to Spain. But still, something inside me was questioning why I should be the one to change. I had worked so hard for my place at university, why should I move? This was the dream that I had fought to achieve. Every step of the way had been a struggle, from learning a new language and navigating a different culture, to dealing with missing out on social activities and managing my insecurities as a teenager. And yet I had managed to finish school with top grades and get a place on one of the most competitive programs. I was torn between leaving or fighting back to recover my dignity. Since you are reading this blog, you can guess that I chose the latter.


I went back to university as a different person to the one who had left. I established a volunteer team from the same friends who had witnessed this humiliating incident, involving other students to collect statistics on persons with disabilities from within the university. I heard so many stories in the process, students with disabilities who had left due to the appalling treatment they received; only attended to take exams; or whose attendance was dependent on the accessibility of the specific class or exam. The secret service even came to question me because they wanted to know who I was and why I was doing this. I explained what I was doing, and they told me that I needed special permission and from whom. They said that I had to request permission through a formally recognized organization. This is how my organization was established. It was the first time a Kurdish woman started an organization for persons with disability in Syria based on rights, not charity. I also created a website so that people outside of Aleppo could contact me and was surprised by how many people got in touch. At this time, I realized that a kind of revolution would be needed to achieve even basic accessibility. I started writing stories to share them and this is when I first began writing my blog. Establishing the organization took several years, but finally we had the Cultural Forum for People with Special Needs. The Cultural Forum didn’t stop at the university though, and we went on to facilitate change for persons with disabilities in many other areas, but I will save that for another blog.


To be continued…


Chavia Ali

#chaviaali

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