PETRA, Jordan — Locals at the Wehdat Palestinian refugee camp used to toss their garbage on the front steps of the town’s main day center for the mentally disabled.
Back when the daily activity center opened its doors in 2001, explains social worker Bayan Al-Nimer, this was a way for them to show their disrespect for those in the building; and their displeasure at having a facility caring for the mentally retarded in their neighborhood.
“But every day,” Al-Nimer tells me, “The young men and women of the center would quietly go out and pick up the trash and put it in garbage cans.”
Little by little, the locals not only stopped dumping their garbage at the center’s door, they started accepting the project’s “beneficiaries” (as they are called at the Wehdat Center) as integral parts of the camp.
The Wehdat Center is one of several projects either entirely or partly funded by the Swedish Organization for Individual Relief (SOIR), a humanitarian group that has been active in Jordan for four decades.
The facility cares for about 30 young adults with varying degrees of mental disability. The women learn the basics of stitching and cooking. The men learn carpentry.
“It’s something for them to do,” says Al-Nimer, “or they would be at home all day. The young men, they are in the streets if they don’t have a place to go to.”
The Swedish Organization has had to fight many battles to reach this point. When its country director Zeinat Abu-Shanab first starting working for the group, she tells me, having mentally retarded children was considered so shameful that parents often locked them away in their homes.
“Those children were hidden, nobody could see a handicapped child in the street.” she says. “They were abandoned, they were unknown.”
Over the years, the taboo surrounding mental retardation started to fade and the Jordanian government has passed laws promoting equal rights for the physically and mentally handicapped.
But although there has been progress with integrating the physically disabled, mental retardation has been a lot trickier. The stigma is still there and, I’m told, a lack of resources to help those who suffer from intellectual disability.
At the Wehdat day center, I talk to 20-year old Mohammad. Shy and soft-spoken, he hardly looks up when I ask him what he wants to do. It’s difficult not to feel some degree of discomfort asking a 20-year old what he wants to be “when he grows up”.
“I want to be a carpenter.”
He rubs his index and thumb fingers together.
“To make money.”
Sometimes, while on assignment for “Inside the Middle East,” it is difficult not to be affected by the sorrows and hardships of the people whose stories we cover.
A few years ago, I remember interviewing a young Sudanese couple who’d fled the violence in Darfur. They’d crossed into Egypt and made it safely to Cairo after a long and perilous trip. They were waiting for the UNHCR to grant them official refugee status.
We interviewed them (the husband was a veterinarian, the wife an engineer) in their temporary home in a slum on the outskirts of Cairo. It was all this vibrant, educated couple could afford.
They had no money for even the most basic household items, yet insisted on buying the CNN crew sodas from the corner street vendor. I didn’t touch my drink in the hope that they would return it and get their money back.
I then asked the husband if he had brought anything with him from Darfur; something to remember home by (I was thinking TV visuals — what can I film?) He reached into his pocket.
“I brought back one thing: a picture of my father and two brothers. They were all killed,” he answered.
The memory of this man and the picture of his dead family has stayed with me ever since and I sense that, on some level, the same thing will happen with the images and memories of the Wehdat day center.
At the activity center, social worker Bayan Al-Nimer readjusts her headscarf and smiles warmly at a young woman weaving a coarse blue rug on an old wooden loom.
“It’s very rare employers will take them in,” she says with a weak smile. “They don’t trust them with the tools and co-workers sometimes make fun of them.”
We stop at a table with four young adult women. Al-Nimer tells me three of them are sisters. She explains that it’s common for siblings to be born with the same kind of mental retardation because of high intermarriage rates in certain parts of the Middle East.
Marriage between close relatives, mainly direct cousins, means the likelihood that a gene carrying mental disability will appear is higher if mental retardation already exists in the family.
So preventing the multiplication of these cases in single families requires a massive education campaign and a cultural shift.
Case in point: 12-year old Mohannad, a Downs Syndrome child in the Al-Moustar neighborhood, a low income district in Amman. Mohannad’s mother and her 11 relatives sleep in one room and survive on handouts from charitable institutions, including the Swedish Organization. There are two other siblings with mental retardation in the family.
I often see this in the Middle East: Families who can barely afford food continuing to bring child after child into the world. When I ask the parents why they don’t stop at two or three, the wives regularly tell me that their husbands consider a large number of children a testament to their manliness.
Changing the way people have children and raise families, social workers tell me, will take time. It’s a generational struggle.
While the crew is filming the young men’s carpentry workshop, I step out to get away from the fumes of the wood varnish. I remember what Al-Nimer told me about how locals would hurl their trash at the Wehdat building.
I look around and notice there are bags of rubbish dumped almost everywhere on the street except on the spotless front steps of the day center.