The Cultural Forum for People with Special Needs
In 2000, I was accepted to Aleppo University to study law, which was one of my dreams as a child. I had heard that the law department had an elevator, but when I arrived, I found it was not working and that it hadn’t been used for a long time. I spent two months going between different departments at the university to try to fix it, and was finally given the name of an important person who I was told could fix all of my problems.
I went to meet the man with friends and colleagues, expecting to discuss accessibility issues and try to find a solution to the elevator problem. However, he only laughed, made jokes, and insulted me, questioning why I needed a law degree when I couldn’t walk.
This led to a period of depression as I tried to forget the experience. But I couldn’t. I realised the problem was with him and not me. I returned to university and, with other students, began a campaign and a website. In 2001, this was when the Cultural Forum began.
It was a small website with articles about issues in Aleppo University and advocacy for rights for people living with disabilities. Many people brought stories of leaving the university because of a lack of rights and respect. From this, we decided to build the Cultural Forum into a real organisation to campaign for change.
At this time in Syria, it was difficult to create an organisation campaigning for change. Permission from the government was only given to charities, and not to organisations focusing on human rights promotion. What’s more, permission was rarely granted to organisations headed by Kurds. It took four years until the Cultural Forum was formally registered, although we continued to meet and campaign in the meantime.
Once formally registered, we began to collaborate with other organisations both locally, regionally, and globally. With over 500 members and 700 volunteers, we organised lectures and courses, offered skills training, and promoted artistic expression while working with galleries and media. We worked on legislation and collaborated with the UN and other Arab countries, including on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. We also offered support to refugees coming from the war in Iraq. Our projects focused on accessibility and awareness raising and the organisation inspired others across the region, such as in Yemen and Lebanon.
Because of the war, however, the Cultural Forum had to reduce its activities in Syria as many members left or, sadly, were killed. Nevertheless, advocacy for people with disabilities is needed more than ever in Syria, where the war has left half of the population with visible or invisible disabilities.
In 2020, the Cultural Forum was officially registered as a non-profit organisation in Sweden, and we look forward to continuing our work advocating for persons with disability in Sweden, Syria, and around the world!