Twice a week, Saw, 12, takes his little brother Kyan, 4, to the Handicap International rehabilitation center. It’s a 15 minute walk through the refugee camp, along steep and often inaccessible paths, with his brother’s weight heavy on his back. But Saw persists, because the rehabilitation sessions are far too important for his brother. They also offer a brief weekly reprieve from his responsibilities as caretaker.
While his little brother–who has cerebral palsy–does his exercises, Saw finally gets the chance to play and be a child himself. He discovers clay and puzzles, plays with balls, and interacts with other children. The toys are actually meant for children with disabilities and their rehabilitation exercises, but the staff is happy to let him play. After all, as soon as Kyan finishes his exercises, Saw returns to his adult life where there’s no opportunity for such distractions.
Dropping out of school
Last year, Saw dropped out of school. "I wanted to take care of my little brother," he explains. He calls Kyan his brother, but Saw is actually the boy’s uncle. When Kyan was born, his father ran away and was never seen again. He didn’t want to deal with his son’s disability. Last year, hoping to find some work, his mother went to Bangkok, a risky choice, as she could end up in prison because Karen refugees from Myanmar such as herself don’t have to right to work in Bangkok. She left her son, Kyan with her parents who also live in the camps, but they are older and find it difficult to take care of him. Their youngest son, Saw, decided to look after the boy instead.
Conscientiously, Saw helps Kyan with his daily rehabilitation exercises. He massages his muscles, helps him walk around the house with his walking device, and makes him move his arms and legs to prevent them from becoming stiff. “It’s thanks to Saw that the effects of Kyan’s cerebral palsy haven’t gotten worse,” says Kan, a physical therapist with Handicap International. “Saw can sit up and pull himself up–that's quite impressive!”
The two boys are inseparable. They never leave each other’s sight. Saw can read Kyan’s body language and knows when he’s hungry or thirsty. Kan states: “What Saw does for his brother is admirable. But it’s also worrisome, since Saw’s missing out on his on childhood. He never plays with children his own age."
“I find it hard to leave him alone,” says Saw. “Kyan can become agitated if he doesn’t see me. I would like to take him with me to the football field, but it’s too dangerous.” He points at the rocky, steep path in front of the house. “The paths in the camps are filled with loose stones, there are holes and steep slopes. When it rains, the camp changes into a slippery obstacle course. I’m too afraid to walk around with Kyan on my back. I only take the chance when we have to go to the rehabilitation center. And unfortunately, there’s no other place in the camp that is suitable for Kyan to play.”
But thanks to Handicap International's new partnership with the IKEA Foundation, Kyan and Saw will soon have a new playground at their camp, where they can both play and meet other children.
Life as a refugee child
Today, children with disabilities in the refugee camps can visit Handicap International’s center for rehabilitation services. Parents, family, and friends of each child are trained in rehabilitation exercises and care to ensure that progress isn't lost between sessions. Many of the exercises are doing through play.
Other children in the camp are extremely vulnerable for other reasons. They are malnourished, in poor health, orphaned, or coming from traumatic backgrounds, and sometimes they are kept at home. Growing up in a refugee camp is already incredibly difficult, especially if you’re a child with a disability. That’s why we’ve started a new project–Growing Together–that gives displaced children the right to be a child.
Growing Together project
Growing Together is a four-year project in Thailand, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, and is funded by the IKEA Foundation. Handicap International is creating inclusive spaces where children can come together–through play–to work through some of the challenges they face, especially children with disabilities. In addition to inclusive playgrounds, Growing Together will target the youngest children who are at risk of development problems. Simultaneously, the program will engage local child development service providers and help them become more responsive to the needs of boys and girls with disabilities and other vulnerable children. Learn more about the partnership.
Handicap International in Thailand
Since 1984, Handicap International has worked along the border with Myanmar. The main activities are fitting refugees with locally-produced prostheses, rehabilitation services, empowering people with disabilities and social inclusion in local communities, and the prevention of mine accidents through risk education. Learn more about our work in Thailand.