Chavia Ali was born in Syria in 1980 and became disabled after contracting polio when she was nine months old. Young Chavia was sent to live with her uncle in Spain in order to obtain medical treatment, and the years she spent there marked the beginning of her fluency in multiple languages. Returning to Syria at the age of 13, Chavia’s education continued in both Arabic and Kurdish. Eventually, she found her life’s purpose at the University of Aleppo, but not in the manner that most students do.
When asked what inspired her to become an advocate for the disabled, Chavia told SYRIAWISE: “Because of an elevator – On my first day of university when I entered the building I went towards the elevator, full of confidence, looking forward to my first class. When I tried to call the elevator, I realized that it was locked and no one was coming to unlock it for me. This is how the journey started – with a quest to fix the elevator and to build a ramp up the entrance steps so that I could come to class independently and with dignity. The attitude and lack of willingness by the university to solve this problem were what caused me to get involved in advocacy at the university.”
Now, fully aware of the challenges faced by persons with disabilities in Syria, Chavia founded the Cultural Forum for Persons with Special Needs in 2000. At the outset, it was a small website with articles about issues in Aleppo University and advocacy for rights for people living with disabilities. Many people brought stories of leaving the university because of a lack of rights and respect. From this, it was decided to build the Cultural Forum into a real organization to campaign for change. It grew to have over 500 members and 700 volunteers, organized lectures and courses offered skills training, and promoted artistic expression while working with galleries and media. In addition, work was done on legislation as the Cultural Forum collaborated with the UN and with other Arab countries, including on the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Because of the war, however, the Cultural Forum had to reduce its activities in Syria, as many members left or, sadly, were killed. In 2012, Chavia was compelled to leave as well and initially stayed close to the border in the hope of being able to return. When it became apparent that her home was no longer safe to return to, Chavia went to Turkey. Needing to find a more accessible place to live, she then flew to Sweden where she was granted asylum. In 2020, the Cultural Forum was officially registered as a non-profit organization in Sweden.
The war in Syria has inevitably led to an increase of persons with disabilities. It has left half of the population with visible or invisible disabilities, such as loss of limbs, or psychological and mental health disabilities. Additionally, damages to infrastructure, livelihoods, and health facilities, as well as unsafe conditions in many parts of the country, are rendering life for people with disability increasingly difficult. Therefore, advocacy for people with disabilities is needed more than ever in Syria.
In terms of seeking and receiving asylum in Sweden, there is no distinction made between a person with or without disability; they must meet the same criteria. As a result, Chavia has witnessed persons with disability being deported from Sweden because they were considered as not meeting these criteria. But there is special consideration given in Sweden to persons with disability when seeking asylum in terms of providing accessible accommodation and facilities. However, in comparison to persons with disability who are citizens of Sweden, the rights enjoyed by asylum seekers are not equal. For example, an asylum seeker is not eligible to have an electric wheelchair even if they require one, due to their immigration status.
Chavia has been working with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) since September 2020, based in the Regional Hub of the Regional Bureau for Arab States (RBAS). During her first assignment with UNDP, she worked in communications at the New York HQ, contributing to the development of the RBAS inclusive digital communications guide, and the Arab Human Development Report, keeping abreast of the latest and most relevant news from the Arab region and offering a critical eye to current events. She also planned an inter-agency online panel discussion for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities, attended by the interim director of RBAS.
Since September 2021, Chavia has been based in the Regional Office in Jordan, as the first-ever Regional Focal Point for Persons with Disability. She is responsible for spearheading the regional disability portfolio, providing technical support to the 17 country offices, and creating policies and processes to champion inclusive development. Through this, she has also established a regional disability focal point network, developed a Regional Approach for Mainstreaming the Inclusion and Accessibility of Persons with Disabilities, and inclusive digital communication guidelines. The overarching aim is to establish UNDP as an inclusive employer internally and through mainstreaming disability in its programming.
On a more personal level, Chavia shared that she views social media as an excellent way for persons with disabilities to build a supportive community. Her goal is to connect the people she knows and the friends she has made through their involvement in previous events. “I’m trying to gather them and connect them on Facebook or even other social media,” Chavia told SYRIAWISE. She is particularly focused lately on connecting Syrians, with or without disabilities, who now find themselves feeling disconnected due to the fact that they are scattered all over the world.
“I am a person who decided not to wait for change, but to create that myself.”Chavia Ali
Chavia sees Facebook as more than just a social network. It is also a meaningful platform for encouraging her friends and to that end she tries to come up with periodic themes. For instance, a few months ago she devoted a whole month to sharing inspirational quotes, proverbs and sayings. Another month she focused on couples and people who had found love and marriage in spite of the difficulties of their circumstances. Currently she is posting photos of friends from all over the world and giving them titles like “Joy”, “Perseverance” and “Initiative.”
“I see Facebook as a window we can use to share love with each other in spite of our cultural or physical differences,” says Chavia. Her Facebook bio reads: “I am a person who decided not to wait for change, but to create that myself,” and it is obvious that the change she is creating is making the world a better place for us all.