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A blind refugee's journey across the sea to Europe Open in fullscreen

The New Arab

A blind refugee's journey across the sea to Europe

The sound of the sea was entrancing for the blind refugee [Getty]

Date of publication: 12 May, 2016

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The New Arab follows the trek made by Ahmed, a blind Syrian refugee who crossed land and sea to reach safety in Germany.
"The sound of the sea was beautiful. But as I was listening to the waves, other refugees said they were going to try and sleep, just to avoid looking at the sea. I laughed, and promised to wake them up when we arrived, except, how could I know that we had arrived when I am blind?"

Ahmed Othman's account of his crossing the Mediterranean mirrors the hundreds of thousands of individual stories of refugees arriving in Europe.

His story is of a homeland wrecked by war and destruction and of a desperate flight from Syria through Turkey, but all while being completely blind.

Portrayals of the refugees crossing to the West often focus on scores of young, fit and able men seeking refuge in Europe. This image has been favoured by press and politicians eager to scare-monger.

Quite ignored however is all-encompassing breadth of people forced to face the perilous sea journey.

New-born babies with their mothers, single fathers, orphaned children and elders all make up a significant portion of the refugee populace passing through Turkey.

But many who also make the journey are physically disabled - the paralysed in wheelchairs and the deaf and blind. Many disabled from birth, others disabled by the ravages of war that caused them to flee.

Many refugees who make the journey are physically disabled - the paralysed in wheelchairs and the deaf and blind

A difficult journey

For Ahmed Othman, blindness meant his struggle to cross into Europe and find a new home had its own distinct obstacles.

Most difficult at first he says was slipping past Turkey's coast-guard.

Click here to enlarge.

"It was easy for them to catch me," Ahmed says, "How could I escape if I can't see them?"

Ahmed was detained five times by the Turkish coast guards, who forced him after his last arrest to sign a document he could not read, pledging not to attempt to cross into Europe again.

"I told myself, if I can escape them I can get to Germany. Everything will be easy as long as I get to a boat without being caught," he says.

But when he did eventually manage to board a boat, he realised that the great danger faced by those attempting the sea-crossing were worse for him still.

"As soon as I got to a boat, I realised how wrong I was to think that the coast guards were my biggest problem," Ahmed says.

"How can a blind man get on a boat? I was told to hold on tight and hop quickly on. I tried to many times, but fell into the waters over and over."

How can a blind man get on a boat? I was told to hold on tight and hop quickly on. I tried to many times, but fell into the waters over and over

"I thought I could never make it on," he says. "For me, that was the biggest obstacle of my entire journey."

Eventually with the help of those around Ahmed managed to make it.

Click here to enlarge.

But as he narrates, while others on the craft shut their eyes firmly to the sight of crashing waves which they knew had taken so many lives already, Ahmed himself was entranced by the sound of the sea.

Eventually he made it onto Greek shores.

Yet despite being surrounded by dozen others, Ahmed speaks of days of extreme loneliness, walking blind in the middle of a large group of refugees.

He did not know where they were heading, but walked on anyway.

He rested when the group stopped, and got back up when they moved. Over the following days, if he was lucky, he would overhear someone naming their current location.

The refugees, with blind Ahmed among them, eventually made it the borders of Macedonia.

He camped at the border for four nights, eating whatever was presented to him without knowing what it was.

In any environment the life of a blind person has its extreme difficulties.

At camp, keeping track of his own meagre belongings proved impossible. He lost a shoe, but fearing to be left behind and alone, he followed the crowd wearing just one.

Soon after Ahmed arrived in Austria, he met a volunteer who spoke Arabic and asked him what he needed. Ahmed explained that he had been walking with one shoe, so the volunteer brought him a fresh pair.

"I was so happy to receive new shoes. I was ecstatic!" Ahmed recalls.

Over a month later, Ahmed's journey ended in Germany, just as he had planned.

Ibrahim al-Hussein, who lost part of his leg in an explosion in 2012, was given the honour of carrying the Olympic torch on part of its journey through Greece

Disabled refugees

A light was shone on the unique plight of disabled refugee when late last month Ibrahim al-Hussein, who lost part of his leg in an explosion in 2012, was given the honour of carrying the Olympic torch on part of its journey through Greece.

But disabledrefugees, or those caring for those with disabilities, face distinct challenges often unreported including those denied access to special disability allowances due to their legal status.

A joint report in 2014 by HelpAge International and Handicap International on the Syrian refugee crisis report that "one in five refugees is affected by physical, sensory or intellectual impairment; one in seven is affected by chronic disease; and one in 20 suffers from injury."

It highlighted that "older, disabled and injured refugees face specific challenges that contribute to their vulnerability."

"Yet, studies of humanitarian programming show that these same groups are often neglected in the assessment, data collection, design and delivery of responses," it added.

Two years on from the report the plight of refugees has both escalated and worsened.

Ahmed's story highlights in the fury of heated debates about the refugee crises, how the plight of the disabled is still ever-present despite being overlooked.

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