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Focus on the Middle East

April 2012

Love Your Son but "Treat him Like a Cat or Dog"

PhotoMentally and physically disabled persons in Jordan need all the help they can get. A Japanese expert assists them.

When Nada Alfy Thabet gave birth to a son in 1980 she faced a parent's worst nightmare. Maged was mentally retarded. "Take him home, love him, but treat him like a cat or dog," doctors repeatedly told the Egyptian mother.

A ‘scream’ which had been building inside her ever since the birth "grew louder," she said. "Something must be done."

Nada Alfy Thabet's husband, pharmacist Mourad Loutfy Sabet, estimates 10% of Egypt's population suffers from some type of physical or mental impairment, a pattern repeated in many areas of the Middle East.

Few countries have the resources to adequately help such groups but in 2000 Nada Alfy Thabet founded the Village of Hope to help both her son and other similarly disabled.

Today, in the city of Borg El Arab on the outskirts of Alexandria the village supports 45 patients aged between 15 and 30 by teaching physical rehabilitation and learning skills in such areas as carpet weaving, handicrafts and baking. "We are preparing them to re-enter society," says Loutfy Sabet who is the center's treasurer.

Parents are taught how to inter-react and handle their children.

JICA has been working with the Village of Hope since 2005 and similar institutions in other Middle Eastern countries as part of the organization's overall policy of helping particularly vulnerable groups such as the disabled or expectant mothers and their children and smoothing inequalities in society which was a major cause of the Arab Spring uprising.

These vulnerable groups are often overlooked or ignored by society at large or receive inadequate assistance from underfunded and overstretched health services.

Two Japanese volunteers, 38-year-old Yumi Ito, and 31-year-old occupational therapist Ayumi Mizui, are helping patients at the Village of Hope during a two-year stint as volunteers (JOCV).

At the Mohamed Rachid Foundation in nearby Alexandria, another volunteer, Kanae Makita, a ceramics expert who "wanted to become more involved in the world" is teaching both disabled children and disabled cleaners and manual workers at the foundation the skills of ceramics, pottery and carpet making–skills which they will be able to use to eventually support themselves.

And in the Egyptian capital, Cairo, volunteer Ai Takahashi is also introducing both unskilled and deaf and disabled Egyptians to turn plant refuse such as rice straw and banana stalks into eye catching traditional paper products ranging from earrings to lamp shades to photo albums at the El Nafeza non governmental organization which are popular with foreign tourists.

PhotoIn Egypt a volunteer helps a group of mentally disabled to make handicrafts

Jordanian Activities

There is a similar picture in Jordan.

Virtually in the shadow of the towering old crusader castle at Karak, two young Japanese volunteers, Ren Kamioka, a special education teacher and Shingo Aisaka, an occupational therapist, help some of the around 120 persons with intellectual disabilities here aged 14 to 60. The rehabilitation center has established what officials call a center "unique in the Arab World" where a small group of patients have set up home and totally look after themselves. Others have been encouraged to undertake physical activities and have even entered the annual Dead Sea Marathon.

On a recent day, Tokiko Sato, JICA's senior advisor on population, reproductive health and community health and Jordanian doctor Khawla Kawwa were visiting nearby villages where health educators were first recruited in 2008 to explain and promote family planning and other health issues.

Jordan is a conservative country, its birth rate is among the world's highest and the population could double by 2030. But according to Tokiko Sato and Dr. Kawwa, the young health educators, on home visits and at a series of village health centers, have done such a good job that the birthrate in their pilot areas has fallen well below the national average.

Tokiko Sato has worked in the Middle East region since the 1990s and agrees that in health as in other fields, there is "widespread disparity…between rural areas and towns…and in the towns themselves. It is an everyday reality."

Maternal and child health is a major concern in the neighboring Palestinian territories and Palestinian refugee camps which dot the entire region.

Because of the militarized nature of the territories with numerous military checkpoints and physical barriers the health of prospective mothers and their young offspring are particularly fragile. In cooperation with local and international organizations JICA has helped prepare and distribute a useful handbook which patients, doctors and nurses use to chart their health and three Japanese experts are currently training nurses and doctors to use both advanced technologies and diagnoses.

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