Blind Seek Dignity Through Education

Visually impaired Kurds face discrimination, but many are determined to learn despite the obstacles.

Blind Seek Dignity Through Education

Visually impaired Kurds face discrimination, but many are determined to learn despite the obstacles.

When he was 14, Mukhtar Tofiq's weakening eyesight failed completely. But even as a young teenager, he decided that his life was far from over.

Tofiq, from the town of Halabja on the border between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, begged his family and teachers to let him go to school. He cried when they turned him down – but he persevered, and eventually discovered an educational programme run by the Kurdistan Union for the Blind in Sulaimaniyah. He made the difficult decision to leave his family and move to the city to pursue his dream of an education.

He got through intermediate school on his own and also took a music course, where he took up the keyboard. Now, at 21, his dream is to start a band with some visually impaired friends.

"If it wasn't for this union, who would have taught me music and helped me finish school?" he said. "This place made my dream a reality."

Organisations like the Kurdistan Union for the Blind are almost entirely based in Kurdistan's two main cities, Sulaimaniyah and Erbil, but despite limited resources they have made considerable strides in helping visually impaired people.

Next door to its run-down offices, the union has a dormitory which can accommodate 20 students, aged from 12 to 30. With about 3,000 registered members, the organisation has to turn down dozens of students from outlying areas because of the lack of space.

The government has promised to build a boarding house in Sulaimaniyah to accommodate blind students from outside the city, and there are also plans to send some visually impaired Kurds abroad for treatment.

While the government does not have any official statistics for northern Iraq, Abubakir Ahmed, the head of the Kurdistan Union for the Blind, estimated that about 10,000 people here are sightless. About 80 per cent of them had their sight damaged by conflict.

Many visually-impaired people face financial hardship.

The Iraqi Kurdish government's Sulaimaniyah administration pays a 20 dollar monthly benefit to citizens with disabilities. That is hardly enough to scrape by on, so many blind people remain heavily reliant on their families.

About 200 members of the union for the blind are employed to recite the Koran at mosque services and funerals, a common profession for the visually impaired.

For blind students, getting through school is hard work, but some like 27-year-old Umed Salim Fatah have made it to university.

Fatah was six months old when he came down with measles, which weakened his eyesight. He became blind at 13 after Saddam Hussein's relocated his entire village to a township where there were no medical services.

Fatah pushed his family to enrol him in the Institute for the Blind in Erbil, where 60 students – including 40 women – graduated last year. He completed his education there, studying from recordings of books. Braille material is still hard to come by in Iraqi Kurdistan, although the government recently signed a contract to import a Braille printing press.

Doctors have told Fatah, now a fourth-year student at Sulaimaniyah University's college of languages, that he might regain his sight if he could find 4,000 US dollars for an operation which can only be done outside Iraq. But he says this is unlikely, and has made other plans.

He edits a magazine for the blind, and says he wants to teach at the institute when he finishes his studies.

Fatah has had a lot of help from friends who audiotaped textbooks for him.

But he will not accept pity. "I love the fact that they help me as a normal person," he said.

Discrimination against people with disabilities is common in the region, as it is in much of the world. Iraqis with disabilities are often isolated in their homes and find it difficult to get around without the assistance of others.

Student Chiya Fatah, 25, was born blind and spends a lot of time at the union. She refuses to use a cane because she does not want to be mocked, but she finds it difficult to get around.

Chiya is a talented singer and has already recorded a song. But she said the union needs a better recording studio for talented students, who she said find particular solace in music.

"Music is the only way we're rescued from darkness," she said. "It's the only way to discover ourselves."

Talar Nadir is an IWPR trainee journalist in Sulaimaniyah.
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