With his slight frame pressed up against the railings, Samer spends hours each day on the small balcony outside his family’s modest apartment in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. Until recently, this was his only window to the outside world.

Born with autism spectrum disorder – a developmental disability that impairs his social communication and interaction skills – 10-year-old Samer has lived most of his life in relative isolation, struggling to communicate, share his feelings or interact with people around him.

In his hometown of Mosul in Iraq, specialised services for children with autism were scarce, so Samer mostly stayed inside the family home. When armed groups took control of the city in 2014, millions of people fled their homes and parts of the city were reduced to rubble.

Unable to care for her autistic child amidst the chaos and violence, Samer’s mother, Catrina, decided to escape with her family to Lebanon, home to nearly one million refugees, including more than 15,000 from Iraq.

Being forced to flee and start over in a new country is difficult enough. For refugees with a disability and their carers, fitting in and accessing support services can be extremely challenging.

Samer lives in Beirut, Lebanon, with his parents and siblings. Catrina’s husband and three daughters work to help the family afford the cost of Samer’s special needs. © UNHCR/D. Ibarra Sanchez 

The International Day for Tolerance, marked each year on 16 November, recognises that all people are different, but all are deserving of equal rights and opportunities. The day promotes respect, dignity and mutual understanding – values that are deeply embedded in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

For refugee children with special needs like Samer, UNHCR works to provide them with access to specialist care and opportunities to become part of their new community.

Samer now attends a UNHCR-funded community centre for Lebanese and refugee children in Beirut. The centre provides free weekly activities for more than 40 refugee children from Syria and Iraq. It offers recreational activities, art workshops and games, all under the guidance of social workers.

“We try our best to involve people with specific needs, to include them in the activities,” explained Jessica Frem, a social worker at the centre.

For the past several months, Samer and his mother have been attending classes every Tuesday. After only a few weeks, Samer began to engage with the group.

Samer attends a UNHCR-supported children’s centre for refugee children where he plays ball games to help him to interact with others. © UNHCR/D. Ibarra Sanchez

 

“We noticed that Samer loves to play with the ball,” Jessica says. “So we simply tell him to throw the ball as a way to engage him in the games. With time, the children got used to Samer and are more familiar with his ways of interacting. They are becoming friends with him and are trying, in their own ways, to help him.”

Catrina is grateful for the opportunity the weekly group gives Samer to connect with other children, and has seen a positive impact on his behaviour.

“He has improved since he joined the activities,” she said. “Before that, he would not play, and he would isolate himself and get angry. Now he is starting to play and laugh with other children.

“For Samer, I’d do anything. No matter how tired I might get. I feel very happy when I see him play and laugh.”

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Samer plays at a UNHCR-funded community centre in Beirut, Lebanon. © UNHCR/D. Ibarra Sanchez

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