Safa: A Little Girl Fights to Walk Again

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Ahmed waited for hours by his daughter’s hospital bed as she lay unconscious. Her right leg was gone—amputated almost to the hip. He was overcome with anguish and anger, wondering how he would explain it all to six-year-old Safa when she woke up. Ahmed had tried so hard to protect her and her five other sisters and mother. They had given up all vestiges of their old life and moved from town to town to keep ahead of the war that was engulfing Syria. They had already survived two bombings. But, it wasn’t enough. The war seemed to hunt them wherever they went.

One day in June 2013, Ahmed was outside near the house where his family was staying in a small town outside Damascus when he saw a rocket slam into the building. As dust and black smoke rose up, Ahmed ran to the house as fast his legs would carry him. He found all of his family members alive, but Safa, one of his twin daughters, was missing. Eventually she was discovered laying on the ground, covered in blood, with her right leg completely pulverized. It had to be amputated to save her life.

“When she woke up, I tried to comfort her, and told her everything was OK—but she already knew,” says Ahmed. “‘Daddy,’ she said, ‘they took my leg.’”   

When Safa was stable, the family took what few possessions they had left and crossed the border into Jordan to live as refugees in Zaatari—the world’s second largest refugee camp.

Six months later, Safa is sitting in a wheelchair in the front of a bustling classroom at a UNICEF-run school in Zaatari. She wears a gold star on her forehead which she got from her teacher as a reward for writing her numbers correctly on the blackboard. She’s been able to join her sisters in class since receiving a wheelchair from Handicap International.

A few minutes later, Ahmed arrives to pick up Safa and her sisters. “I love Safa very, very much,” says Ahmed. “It is difficult to take her to school, half an hour there and half an hour back, but it would be more difficult to bear if I didn’t allow her to go. She was injured, but she still has her mind, and she is clever.”

At Safa’s home, a one-room metal shed, Safa is visited by Handicap International Physiotherapist Bara’ah. Bara’ah has been doing rehabilitation exercises with Safa for several weeks now. She teaches Safa how to walk with crutches and do strengthening exercises so she is ready to receive a prosthetic leg in a few weeks’ time. But, for a six year old, it’s not easy work.

“Safa accepts my help to do exercises but sometimes if she is not in the mood she refuses,” says Bara’ah. “But, if her dad encourages her and tells her she has to do her exercises in order to walk, and if I tell her she has to do the exercises to wear the prosthesis and be able to play with other children, she step by step accepts that.”

The ultimate goal of Safa’s rehabilitation program is for her to be totally physically independent and able to live as normal a life as possible. 

“As a physio in Handicap International, I am very proud to be here,” says Bara’ah. “It gives me a push to do more, to help more, and to be beside the ones who need us physically and psychologically.”

The next day, at Handicap International’s rehabilitation center in Zaatari, Safa sits beside an older man who has the same type of amputation she does. Bara’ah is leading a group stretching exercise, and the man guides Safa’s arms so she does the stenches correctly. The beneficiaries encourage each other through exercises and games designed to improve their balance and coordination. The smallest beneficiary in the room, Safa has no shortage of people eager to help her and get her to smile.

One of the goals of the group activities is to help the beneficiaries build an emotional support system. By sharing their difficulties and discussing solutions to shared challenges, the beneficiaries are better able to cope and can focus on getting better.

Nearby, Ahmed sits and watches—he is always present for Safa’s rehabilitation work. There’s no easy road ahead for Safa and her family. So much about the future is unknown. But Ahmed holds on to each of Safa’s small successes for inspiration. “Now that Safa is back in school and learning to walk, I have great hope that she will find success later in life,” says Ahmed.