From isolation to disability union leadership

Hamdan Jewei works to highlight the conditions of disabled people living under Israeli occupation. (image courtesy of Hamdan Jewei)

Hamdan Jewei is a 26-year-old Palestinian with six brothers and three sisters, living with a physical disability in the al-Doha village near the city of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank. Jody McIntyre interviewed Jewei for The Electronic Intifada:

Jody McIntyre: How does the Israeli occupation make life more difficult for disabled people living in Palestine?

Hamdan Jewei: Living under occupation is a constant challenge for anyone. One aspect of the occupation here are the hundreds of checkpoints which control our lives. As a disabled person, if you need to get medical treatment outside of Bethlehem, in Ramallah or in Nablus, you have to pass through checkpoints and possibly face hours of waiting and delays, which can be especially difficult for people with mobility difficulties.

I remember once, just before the second intifada, I was taking a bus from Ramallah to Bethlehem, through Jerusalem, and we were stopped at a couple of checkpoints. At one of the checkpoints, the soldier stopped the bus, and out of all the passengers, he only asked me to get out of the bus. I told him, look, I am using crutches to walk, you can see I’m a disabled person, so why are you asking me to get off the bus? And he said, because you are disabled, get off the bus. So I jumped down from the bus; it was difficult for me to get down because of the height, and of course the bus drove away. The soldier told me to leave my crutches on the ground, but I told him that without the crutches I would not be able to stand, so bring me a chair and I will give you the crutches. So he did, and then I asked him what they wanted to do with my crutches. He said, look, you might be a disabled person, but we consider you as the most dangerous people. He told me that I could be carrying something within my crutches which could be a danger to the security of the State of Israel.

It’s also a problem at the borders; when I used to have metal in my legs from operations I’d had, soldiers at the Allenby Bridge crossing to Jordan would strip-search me, put me through every procedure … anything to humiliate me.

JM: What are your memories of the second intifada which began in September 2000?

HJ: For me, it was a nightmare. I lost a couple of friends. I had one friend called Jihad who had a problem with his dialysis, and had to go to the hospital on a regular basis to have it cleaned up. He was living in Beit Fajjah, and we were all under curfew at the time, so when he attempted to go to the hospital he was stopped at a military checkpoint and forced to turn back. He had no contact with his family either, so he had no other choice but to go home and sleep. As he slept, the urea poisoned his blood, and he fell into a coma. He never woke up again. After members of his family forced their way into his home and got an ambulance to take him to hospital, he spent nine days there before he died. He was yet another victim of the occupation.

I was living with my family at the time, in Doha. But this time, all of my family were imprisoned, just as I had been imprisoned as a child.

JM: Tell me about your early life as a child growing up with a disability.

HJ: Actually my life as a disabled child wasn’t easy … unfortunately I was a victim of certain traditions. For disabled children in Palestine, especially in the small villages where there is sometimes a lack of education and awareness, this means that you bring a shame upon your family. So for a family who has a disabled child, instead of nurturing them, they feel a need to hide the child from society. Another aspect of the problem is that disability is looked at as a genetic problem, so if, for example, my brother wanted to get married to a girl from another family, and the girl’s family was to see that we had a disabled child in our family, he would be rejected as a potential husband.

I was a victim of isolation. I had to be hidden, and so my childhood was spent either in hospitals or rehabilitation centers, or kept in a single room within the family home. I was in hospitals up till the age of three, when I was transferred to this room at home, where I would spend the next nine years. The only times I would be allowed out of the room was either to go the bathroom, or if there was no one in the house, if the family had gone out to attend some wedding or social occasion, which I, of course, was never allowed to attend.

I didn’t have much to do growing up in that room, so I began teaching myself things. For example, I learnt to write on my own. I had a small television in the room so occasionally I watched cartoons, but I spent most of my time writing. I fell in love with decorative writing, and decorating my Arabic letters, and gradually I began to write poems. I wrote poems about the situation I was in; for example, I had one called “Isolation,” that was one of the first poems I wrote, and I had another called “The Last Moment,” which I wrote at a time that I was considering committing suicide. I also wrote poems about liberation and freedom. I was living in a prison, so I didn’t know what I could do apart from expressing my feelings through these words. I wasn’t writing poetry every day, but at my lowest points, when I felt that I was really destroyed.

My relationship with my family wasn’t good … my brothers in particular saw me as a strange thing in the house. Especially when I was allowed out of the room, to go to the toilet for example, they thought that the way I walked was really weird. I don’t blame them now … when I looked back to my family’s history, I discovered that when my parents were married when my mother was only 15 years old, and my father was 21 but had began working with his father, selling rubbish in the street, at the age of eight. There was no education in the family, so I understand why my brothers acted the way they did.

I considered committing suicide several times; I needed to talk to people, to express myself, to not feel lonely, but I had no opportunity for communication, not even with my family.

My oldest sister was a little closer to me, or at least closer to the disability I had. She had a sense of humor about things, but didn’t really know what to do with me. The problem was, my brothers were following the traditions of the family, and my other two sisters were too young to understand. Even for my older sister, even if she wanted to change things she couldn’t, because if she wanted to get married, and it was discovered that she had a disabled brother, then she would be discriminated against.

What eventually happened was that at the age of 12, my mother had opened the door of the room to bring me some food, and I attacked her and escaped out of the house. One of the neighbors found me and as he came towards me, saw that I was completely terrified. He took me to his home and I told him the whole story of what had happened … he’d had no idea that there was a disabled child living just next door to him! After a while he took me back home, but my mother didn’t want me. She said that I was a disabled child and therefore useless, and that the neighbor was welcome to take me, so we went back to his place.

Two days later, my mother was listening to a program on the radio, speaking about how important it was to take care of disabled children, and how much of a valued contribution to society they could make if they were only given the opportunity. It was definitely a wake-up call for my mother. She immediately tried to get in contact with the people on the radio show, and she had a simple question to ask them: “I have a disabled child, please can you tell me how to deal with him?” I suppose it was like a first innocent cry for help. There was an immediate response on the radio program, and some people from humanitarian organizations got in touch with my mother, and suggested that she took me to a sports rehabilitation center for disabled people in the YMCA in Beit Jala. At the same time, my mother called the neighbor and asked him to bring me back home.

So my parents took me to this sports center … unfortunately, I wasn’t much of a sporty person. I was much more interested in trying to build up my social network, as I’d never really had any friends or communication with people. I stayed at the sports center for six months, and gradually I began to meet new people, and develop myself both physically and psychologically. By the age of 14, I was appointed project co-ordinator for an Italian organization that was working with the YMCA. I began volunteering for a range of organizations, working with children, disabled people, and in 2000 I joined the Children’s Rights Campaign. In 2003, I was invited to be a part of the international human rights campaign for people with disabilities. A year later, I became a member of the General Union of Disabled People in Palestine.

JM: After you had attacked your mother and escaped from the house, and then went back to live there, how could you forgive your parents?

HJ: At the time, forgiveness wasn’t on my mind, the only thing on my mind was getting my freedom. After my mother had this wake-up call and I went back to the house, she hugged me and apologized, but I couldn’t forgive her immediately. I was a kid at the time. For me, forgiveness came later on, when I started to realize that my family were also victimized by the society they were living in.

JM: Do you think your experience of growing up as a disabled child in Palestine is a unique story?

HJ:I think my story is one of hundreds that we don’t know about. I have personally worked with three cases like mine. One case was when I was working for the General Union of Disabled People in al-Ram, near Ramallah. I was sitting with the president of the office at the time, when a guy walked in and asked to speak with him. The resident asked if I could stay in the room, and the man replied that he didn’t mind, but that we should lock up all the doors and windows, as he wanted to speak about something very important.

The man told us that he had an 18-year-old daughter, and that she had never seen the sun. His daughter was born at home, and after her mother died, he got remarried. He tried to hide his daughter from the eyes of his new wife, but she eventually found out, and told him to keep his daughter hidden in a basement under the house. It was one of the first cases I had witnessed that wasn’t my own.

The next case was a couple of years ago, when a man from one of the villages in south Hebron came to my office after hearing about my story. He was telling me about his 21-year-old daughter, and I asked him if she had a birth certificate. When I found out that she didn’t, I told the man that the first thing he should do would be to go and register her at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, to at least give her the right of existence. Unfortunately he was very afraid, because what he had done is considered a crime under international law. I tried to reassure him that I had some contacts who could help him with the authorities, but he left the office and never came back. I never got to meet his daughter.

These are a couple of the cases I have worked with personally, but I have heard about many, many more.

JM: How do you think this problem within Palestinian society can be combated?

HJ: There are many challenges that we are facing. The first problem is that we are all living inside a giant prison, in the form of the Israeli occupation. Secondly, lots of money has been spent by the Palestinian Authority, but not towards supporting disabled people. Because of this isolation internally, I feel that it is important to spread this message on an international level. I was recently invited by Amnesty International to make a speech in Rome, and this is exactly what I spoke about; not only about the issue as a humanitarian concern, but also about the fact that we are disabled people living under occupation. I think it’s important not to forget that we are all living inside this prison.

JM: How do you think the Palestinian Authority view people with disabilities?

HJ: It’s pretty simple: disabled people in Palestine do not receive any help. The social system here is not functioning, so there is a law regarding the rights of disabled people, but the law is not implemented, and is insufficient in the rights it provides for in the first place. It estimates a figure of 170,000 disabled people living in Palestine; 109,000 living in the West Bank, and the rest in the Gaza Strip, whereas I have read reports which estimate 250,000 as a more accurate figure. Some people who have been injured by the Israeli army are given support, but not all of them.

The government here views disabled people as a poverty issue, so if you are at lowest poverty level, you will receive NIS 96 ($25) per month. That’s not even enough to pay for a day’s transport if you’re in a wheelchair.

JM: I’ve been living in Palestine for nine months of the past year and a half, and I’ve often had difficulties with taking buses because of the attitudes of drivers towards someone in a wheelchair. Have you had similar experiences?

HJ: Absolutely, because unfortunately many people still see disabled people as strange people, or something abnormal. Bus drivers see people in wheelchairs and think, well if I stop for him it will take me so much time and effort to help him and to put his wheelchair on the bus, and it’s not my problem or I can’t be bothered. Just this morning, I tried to stop four buses and they wouldn’t stop for me! One finally did, but even then there is the problem that I find it difficult to get into the back seats, and when I ask the people in the front seats if I could sit there, they will tell me that they’re too tired to stand up, or that it’s too hot, or sometimes they will get so frustrated that they will get up and leave the bus, telling you to pay for their journey as well as yours. Sometimes bus drivers don’t stop for me just because they know that I will ask for the front seat.

Jody McIntyre is a journalist from the United Kingdom. He writes a blog entitled “Life on Wheels” which can be found at He can be reached at jody [dot] mcintyre [at] gmail [dot] com.