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On the Margins of the Margins: Refugees With Intellectual Disabilities

Refugees with intellectual disabilities are a largely forgotten and highly vulnerable group on the margins of the global displacement crisis. David Evangelista of the Special Olympics explains how the movement offers an alternative model for embracing refugees.

Written by David Evangelista Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Mina Bahgat at the Special Olympic Games 2016. Courtesy of the Special Olympics

Among the 65.6 million people displaced around the world, it is estimated that 7.7 million have disabilities, with around half a million having an intellectual disability. These are just conservative estimates given the very low reporting rates for disability figures.

Shrouded in stigma, people with intellectual disabilities are one of the most misunderstood populations in the world today – seen as burdens on their communities, as a population that poses only challenges and no opportunities.

Refugees with intellectual disabilities exist on the margins of the global displacement crisis. While images of refugees on the move have captivated the world’s attention, refugees with intellectual disabilities remain a largely forgotten population. In our connected social media world, they are often disconnected by lack of access to technology, and their voices are rarely heard in the centers of policymaking.

The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR, for example, has identified the specific needs of refugees with intellectual disabilities as an area that requires increased financing, attention and global advocacy.

Yet discussions about how to better support refugees are often riddled by fear, isolation and myth. The world needs a fresh approach to integration of refugees and their new societies.

One model for this new approach comes from a group that is even more misunderstood than refugees – the athletes of Special Olympics.

“Special Olympics gave me a new home,” said Mina Bahgat, speaking at the United Nations during the Annual Lions Day event on March 4. Bahgat is a refugee with an intellectual disability from the Middle East now resettled in the Netherlands with his family. “As a refugee, I was welcomed into a new community, a new family. I learned how to speak Dutch, even learned how to speed skate.”

Stuck within the confines of his home as a young boy, Bahgat is now a young man who boasts of winning Olympic medals in short-track speed skating at the 2017 Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria.

Mina was once seen as a burden on his community. Now he’s a medalist. And in his new country of Holland, he’s making headlines, with his story receiving coverage in the Dutch press.

Playing ‘Unified’

No population understands entrenched stigma and discrimination better than people with intellectual disabilities. According to the 2012 World Bank/WHO World Report on Disability, the global population of people with intellectual disabilities remains perhaps the most marginalized group in the world.

Often relegated to faraway institutions or the darkness of a hidden home, many have almost no self-determination, the lowest forms of community engagement, and one of the highest rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse of any population group in the world. These vulnerabilities become even more acute for migrants and refugees with intellectual disabilities

The Special Olympics athletes also understand better than most the power of sport to unite across divides.

In May, athletes from Special Olympics Cyprus invited refugee youth from the Kofinou Reception Centre for asylum seekers to come and play a floorball match in Larnaca. The refugee girls and boys came from countries including Syria, Somalia, Yemen and Iraq. Many had witnessed incomprehensible horrors and hardships, but on the floorball pitch friendship replaced fear.

The Special Olympics athletes in Malta followed suit in July, extending an invitation to the youngest refugees to the Special Olympics Early Childhood Development program – Young Athletes. Together, they engage in simple play activities, develop motor skills and learn basic sports.

The athletes place a high degree of importance on the need to “play unified,” in which athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play sport together. It is a proven tactic for promoting understanding and fostering friendships, even in the face of difference. Of the 5.6 million Special Olympics athletes around the world, 725,898 are “unified” playing partners.

The Special Olympics is no longer a program for individuals with intellectual disabilities, it is a movement from them. Across many countries, the athletes of Special Olympics invite their friends, refugees and non-refugees alike, to hit the pitch, the court, the pool as part of a strong message to the global community: If we can play unified, we can live unified.

Last week, we celebrated the life of Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the founder of Special Olympics, on July 20. It was on this date in 1968 that the very first Special Olympics Games were held at Soldier Field, Chicago. We remember Mrs. Shriver’s words, spoken to athletes at that event: “Let me win, but if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

Refugees and migrants, especially those with an intellectual disability, have already braved so much. It is now time for civil society and the international community to take note of the example put forth by Special Olympics athletes. The hand of friendship offered from one marginalized group to another is an example to us all.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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