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War is hell. Try doing it in a wheelchair.

Disabled people struggle particularly hard when conflicts erupt. Getting the issue on the international agenda is about as tough as navigating through war-ravaged streets on crutches.

NEW YORK // When military helicopters were buzzing in the skies above her apartment in Aleppo, Syria, Nujeen Mustafa, who suffers from cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair to get around, felt like a burden on her family.

Exiting the home involved carrying her down five flights of stairs. Better, they thought, to hide out in the bathroom and hope that barrel bombs dropped by President Bashar al-Assad’s forces would not come crashing through the ceiling.

“I knew that I was a dramatic disadvantage for them when it came to the need to escape,” Mustafa, now 20, said.

“It would have helped for me to know there was a way to get out without endangering my family and slowing them down.”

Mustafa’s story is one of survival against seemingly insurmountable odds. In January 2014, the family fled from Aleppo to southern Turkey. In August 2015, she said goodbye to her parents and began a month-long, 3,500-mile odyssey to Germany, with her sister pushing at the rear.

They crossed eight borders, including miles of wheelchair-pushing along gravelly tracks, nights spent in the wilderness and a risky sea crossing on a dinghy alongside dozens of other Syrians who were escaping the conflict.

Now a student in Wesseling, near Cologne, with an infectious smile and an unbridled sense of optimism, Mustafa is campaigning so that people with disabilities get more help when bullets start flying in the world’s hotspots.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted.

Fleeing a war zone is hard for everyone. But try navigating streets of strewn rubble, blast craters and shattered glass in a wheelchair, on crutches or while blind or partially sighted, Mustafa said. A deaf evacuee might not hear dangers just around the corner.

The problem goes beyond Syria, said Shantha Rau Barriga, an expert on disabilities with the New York-based campaign group Human Rights Watch.

From Rohingya villages in Myanmar to the battlefields of South Sudan and eastern Ukraine, people with disabilities have an extra set of problems to deal with when towns and cities come under attack.

According to the United Nations, there are more than 1 billion people with disabilities — 15% of the world’s population. An estimated 10 million people with disabilities have been forced to flee their homes due to war and persecution.

Conflict is the cause of 16% of all disabilities. As wars drag on, the number of people with missing limbs or other permanent injuries adds up. In Syria, after eight years of carnage, almost one in four people have a disability.

In Cameroon this year, people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit by a separatist conflict in the English-speaking northwest and southwest regions that has forced half a million people from their homes.

Families have been forced to make heart-wrenching choices between leaving behind relatives with disabilities or exposing them to week-long journeys through bushland, said HRW’s central Africa researcher Ilaria Allegrozzi.

Those abandoned face abuse when government forces reach their towns. In Cameroon, one woman was mocked by government troops and told to remove her prosthetic leg and crawl around on the floor, forcing her to collect money from nearby rooms that they demanded as a payoff, said Allegrozzi.

Such cruelty is not uncommon, said Vladimir Cuk, executive director of the International Disability Alliance, a campaign group. People with disabilities are at greater risk of rape, abuse and starvation once family members have fled, he said.

Emina Cerimovic, one of HRW’s researchers on disability, saw harsh conditions peak in Greece during the global refugee crisis, when people with disabilities were among the masses from Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere seeking new lives in Europe.

There, refugees with disabilities crawled on muddy floors to enter toilets that were not wheelchair-friendly, she said. In one camp, bathroom access was so bad that the parents of an 8-year-old Afghan boy with mental and physical disabilities had to put their son in diapers.

At a camp in Thessaloniki in Greece, Amin, a Syrian refugee who was deaf, languished in his tent alone for nine months. His hearing aid had gotten soaked while he crossed the Aegean Sea. Unable to converse, Amin was cut off from the world, Cerimovic said.

European Sea crossings are notoriously risky for refugees. For those in wheelchairs, the voyage likely involves leaving one’s chair at the shore, as human traffickers free up space to accommodate more paying passengers.

This happened to Ali, a 22-year-old Afghan refugee with disabilities, whom Cerimovic met in the squalid Moria camp in Lesbos. During his first two months there, without a wheelchair, Ali could not use the showers or toilets.

“How would you feel if someone took your feet away? My wheelchair is my feet.”

There is no quick and easy fix to this problem.

Aid workers are usually overstretched when refugees start fleeing war zones in large numbers. There is seldom enough of the basic necessities — water, food and medicine — to go around, let alone find time to track down hearing aids and crutches.

Still, securing more prosthetics, wheelchairs and other devices for refugee hubs could help ease the lives of people with disabilities. When camp staff hand out food parcels, a line that folks with disabilities can access makes life easier, Barriga said.

Campaigners are lobbying donors, humanitarians and the systems through which they operate, such as the European Union. The UN Security Council should make more legally binding references to disabilities, they say.

Upcoming UN resolutions on South Sudan, Afghanistan and the Central African Republic could add language around disabilities that nudge aid chiefs to think harder about the services they provide, monitor the results and report back afterward, Barriga said.

“It’s not just words on paper,” Barriga said. “It’s a binding commitment made by the UN Security Council which has a ripple effect on UN agencies and the way that humanitarians operate on the ground and at many other levels.”

So far, it has been a case of three steps forward, two steps back.

The annual UN resolution on CAR for 2015 obliged UN officials to “monitor, help investigate and report on violations and abuses” against people with disabilities. But that reference was scrapped in subsequent documents.

In April, Mustafa made a landmark speech to the UN’s top body in New York. She told diplomats that people with disabilities were “invisible” and said more of them should be hired to help run camps and aid programs.

She called for a “world that protects, respects and values” people with disabilities.

To that end, campaigners also want to change how people talk about the issue.

Rather than describe individuals as “disabled,” “handicapped” or “wheelchair-bound,” referring to them as a “person with disabilities” stresses their dignity and humanity, said Barriga.

It goes doubly for Mustafa. While her campaign highlights the plight of people with disabilities in wartime, Mustafa recalls how life with cerebral palsy in Syria was a slog even before fighting broke out in 2011.

Leaving her apartment involved being carried downstairs before the war, too — something only attempted for the annual Persian New Year party. The other 364 days were “like house arrest,” she said.

In Syria, her prospects were dim, even in peacetime. In Germany, where schools and movie theaters often have wheelchair ramps, Mustafa eyes a world of possibility and plans to study psychology at university.

“It’s not just being able to get elevators up and down buildings,” Mustafa said. “The mentality is different here. There’s no underestimation. No pity. No undervaluing a person just because he’s disabled. They push you to reach your full potential.”

This article originally appeared on PRI’s The World.


Will the real Pocahontas please stand up?

The descendants of the prominent Native American shrug their shoulders at the anniversary of her death this week.

NEW YORK // She is among the best known Native Americans in history, but the modern-day descendants of Pocahontas, who four centuries ago married an English colonist and sailed across the Atlantic Ocean, show little interest in her.

On March 21, ceremonies in the United States and England will mark 400 years since her death. But there will be no event to honour that date on the Pamunkey Indian Reservation in Virginia where her tribespeople now live.

“For the Pamunkey tribe, it’s not a big deal. She doesn’t mean a whole lot to us. Her contributions to our way of life didn’t really amount to much,” says Robert Gray, chief of the 100-person riverside community.

“We understand the English and Americans think highly of Pocahontas. We appreciate that it brings an interest to our tribe, but we just sit back and figure: if people want to worship a myth, then let them do it.”

The adulation elsewhere is clear. Disney’s 1995 movie about the free-spirited beauty won two Oscars and remains a children’s favourite. The arms of her bronze statue at the colonial site, Historic Jamestowne, have been buffed to a shine by thousands of caressing visitors over the years.

A controversial past

Yet, for the Pamunkey, who trace their origins through Pocahontas and her father, Wahunsenacawh, who led some 15,000 Powhatan tribespeople when English ships landed in 1607, the history of the unconventional young peacemaker is troublesome.

This is not just because Pocahontas symbolises a union between native American tribes and colonisers that ultimately left the natives decimated. It is also because she offers a handy way for many white Americans to gloss over a brutal past and an unhappy present.

The anniversary of her death comes as the Standing Rock Sioux tribe is losing a fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline from slicing through its reservation, and US President Donald Trump uses the name “Pocahontas” as a term of abuse.

Raye Zaragoza, a musician descended from Arizona’s Akimel O’odham people, wrote a protest song, In The River, to support demonstrators in North Dakota and alert countrymen who, she says, neglect the struggles of Native Americans.

“They watch the romanticised Disney movie and dress up like Pocahontas on Halloween, but they don’t know the true story behind it or any of the real culture and customs,” Zaragoza says.

“They think that the abuse, colonisation and genocide against Native Americans are in the past. But it wasn’t only 400 years ago; it’s still happening today.”

The fact that scholars, Disney, Trump and the Pamunkey tell different Pocahontas stories is testament to the lack of records about her life. Even her name is elusive – she was also known as Matoaka, Amonute and, later, Rebecca.

Her most often-cited story is probably apocryphal. According to anecdote, Pocahontas, aged about 11, saved the life of a captive, John Smith, by placing her head over his as her father, the chief, raised his war club to execute the English colonist.

Scholars note that Smith only penned his romance-tinged version of events years after they happened. In reality, it may have been a stage-managed ruse aimed at adopting Smith and his fellow colonists as tribute-payers in the Powhatan confederacy.

Undisputed facts

But some facts about Pocahontas are not disputed. Colonists described the youth cart-wheeling outside their fort at Jamestown, living up to her nickname, Pocahontas, the “playful one”. She was involved in relations between colonists and natives that swung from friendly food-trading to open warfare and kidnapping.

She was kidnapped and held for a year, during which time she converted to Christianity. She took the name Rebecca and married John Rolfe, a tobacco grower, in 1614. They had a son and travelled to England to promote the colony to investors at fancy London soirees.

The only known image of Pocahontas shows her decked out in a trendy lace collar, ostrich feathers and other fineries – the poster child of a “civilised savage” who advertised New World opportunities to everyone from plantation owners to Anglican ministers.

It was short-lived, however. On her way back to Virginia, Pocahontas became ill and died in Gravesend, Kent, in 1617. Back home, the Powhatan confederacy rapidly declined in the 1620s under the onslaught of English colonisation.

For Chief Gray, she is a character to whom many narratives can be attached, though her embrace of a foreign faith and culture that displaced her own people renders her peripheral to Pamunkey culture.

“Some people could say she was a victim, a hero, a traitor,” says Gray, who was elected chief in June 2015, one month before the tribe won federal recognition. “But there’s not enough documentation, we just don’t know what she was thinking back then.”

Her legacy among mainstream Americans is very different. Like the fable of Thanksgiving turkeys, the Disney-fied tale of inter-racial ardour and a harmony between two peoples offers a palatable version of early US history, says scholar James Horn.

“It’s a fantasy, and very much a white fantasy about two peoples uniting,” Horn, a British historian and president and chief officer of the Jamestown Rediscovery Foundation, reflects.

“On the other hand, you’ve got the reality of repeated wars throughout not only the 17th century, but the establishment of a pattern of murders and dispossession in early Virginia that continued all the way down to the 19th century.”

By one estimate, the conquest of the Americas wiped out 95 percent of the indigenous population. The guns and swords of Europeans were obvious causes, although smallpox and other bugs that accompanied them probably claimed many more lives.

Legacy of conquest

A legacy of marginalisation lives on in the US today. Some 5.2 million people – 1.7 percent of the US population – identified as Native American or Alaska Native, according to the most recent Census Bureau data from 2010. According to Pew Research Centre, one in four of them lived in poverty in 2012.

On the campaign trail in 2016, President Trump tapped in to resentment among some whites that Native Americans unfairly benefit from tax-free petrol, casino-building rights and other breaks from Washington.

The Republican billionaire repeatedly mocked Massachusetts Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren’s claim of Cherokee ancestry by referring to her as “Pocahontas” while some of his rally crowds erupted in war whoops.

Since the inauguration, the White House web page on Native Americans has been removed and Trump has signed an executive order to clear the way for the $3.8bn Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed.

While stoking fears of Middle Eastern refugees being terrorists, and of undocumented Mexican immigrants being “bad hombres”, scholar Jim Rice says Trump also feeds on antipathy towards Native Americans among his mostly-white fan base.

“There is a widespread and profound ignorance of Native Americans that often goes so far as to think that there are no legitimately native people left, because they drive cars and have cell phones,” Rice, from Tufts University, says.

“Many people feel that Native Americans have had centuries to get over it and should no longer have what are often termed as special privileges, but are in fact constitutional or treaty rights.”

In England, the Pocahontas story is different once again.

The life-size bronze statue of Pocahontas at St George’s church in Gravesend has had its entry on the national heritage list updated and the British Library hosted a “packed day” of screenings and debates on March 18.

For British writer Kieran Knowles, whose play, Gravesend, will be read aloud there on the anniversary, the four-century mark is a rare opportunity to spotlight a run-down town of “just pound stores and charity shops all the way down”, he says.

It is also worth noting that the Pamunkey were not always so aloof about Pocahontas. Chief Gray himself spoke in London about how, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the tribe promoted an already-popular character to ingratiate themselves with mainstream America.

But that has given way to more recent efforts to “reinvigorate the language” and look back before Pocahontas to revive the pottery, shad fishing, hunting and farming skills that “have been lost from 500 years or so ago”, Gray explains.

By downplaying Pocahontas, the Pamunkey are “pushing back on the over-estimation of her importance by non-native people”, says Rice.

For him, Pocahontas is an ideal character for the nexus between historical fact, belief and present-day storytelling. Four centuries after her death, it seems that we have not yet exhausted the Pocahontas story trove.

“If we knew a little less about her, there wouldn’t be enough purchase for us to really talk and think about her so much,” Rice says. “But if we knew any more about her, we couldn’t so readily project our own concerns and preconceptions on to her.”

This article first appeared on Al Jazeera.