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Shapari’s journey of resilience and courage: The story of a polio survivor

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Unable to walk, run and play with her class fellows, Shapari could not wait for her father to pick her up from school and take her home. She did not enjoy a childhood like so many others did around her.

“I was 2 years old when I got severe fever and, in no time, I lost sensation and energy in both of my legs”, said Shapari, with tears in her eyes.

Shapari had hardly come to terms with her condition when conflict broke out and forced her family to flee the province of Laghman in Afghanistan. She was in 5th grade when she left school and entered Pakistan as a disabled refugee child.

Although her parents managed to enroll her in a school in Peshawar, getting familiar and adjusting to the new environment was not easy, especially due to the physical challenges that she had to overcome. As time went on, it became increasingly difficult to continue her education.

“My hands and feet got completely paralyzed in the 10th grade,” said Shapari in a trembling voice.

Her mother kept motivating her and encouraged her to remain hopeful despite the daunting situation.

“I remember how my mother assured my teachers that I was a hard-working student with a passion to study at school with other children, but I was unable to hold a pen and write due to excessive weakness in my hands.” Shapari recalls how school teachers supported her in Pakistan when learning of her condition.

Shapari managed to continue her education until she reached the 12th grade, but then, she started to lose hope. Reluctant to go out for fear of facing people who made fun of her condition, she sank into depression. Unable to socialize, she spent the next three years at home, in seclusion.

Shapari’s mother could not stand seeing her depressed and suggested her to spend some time with her sister. “As we were on our way to my sister’s home in Hayatabad, an old bearded man saw my mother pushing me in a wheelchair. I do not know who he was, but to me, he was an angel,” said Shapari with a twinkle in her eye.

The old man suggested that they visit Habib Physiotherapy Complex and consult its Founder and Managing Director, Dr. Mahboob Ur Rahman. Two weeks later, Shapari was taken to Habib Physiotherapy Complex, and from there, her life took a new turn. Dr. Mahboob not only initiated her treatment free of cost but also offered to support her education.

Dr. Mahboob assured her that he would take care of her like he would his own daughter. He later helped her get admitted in a Bachelor’s degree programme in Physiotherapy. Shapari was not only enrolled in the physiotherapy course but also encouraged her sister to do so.

Shapari also received a DAFI scholarship through UNHCR. Funded by the Government of Germany and administered by UNHCR, the Albert Einstein German Academic Refugee initiative, known by its acronym DAFI, grants scholarships to deserving young refugees enrolled in Higher Education Commission (HEC) recognized universities, colleges and polytechnics in Pakistan. UNHCR has supported more than 1,700 refugee students in Pakistan through DAFI scholarships since 1992.

Dr. Mahboob Ur Rahman became her mentor, extending all of his support and treating her case for more than 6 months. “Rehabilitated through the Mahboob Power Evaluation and Therapeutic (MPET) chart, an effective tool/exercise in post-polio management, Shapari showed marked improvement as she got rid of crutches and orthotic support,” shared Dr. Mahboob Ur Rahman.

As a result, Shapari saw herself in a new light. “I told myself, I have polio, but polio does not have me,” said Shapari.

Habib Physiotherapy Complex has been providing rehabilitation services to the Afghan refugees since a major influx in 1980’s. UNHCR, the Commissionerate for Afghan Refugees and the International Rescue Committee have been instrumental in supporting its rehabilitation and physiotherapy training programme. In particular, UNHCR supported the training by covering tuition fees, course material costs, transportation and stipends for trainees.

Currently, UNHCR, in collaboration with its partner SHARP and Habib Physiotherapy Complex, is providing psychosocial counselling and assistive devices aiming at the rehabilitation of persons with disabilities who are refugees. There are currently 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, most of whom live in urban settlements alongside Pakistanis.

With her head held high, Shapari decided she would tell the whole world that even a physically challenged person can live a better life and reach for the sky! Shapari was excited to study physiotherapy, but her struggle did not end here. She had to interrupt her studies again due to excessive weakness in her limbs during the last year of her Bachelor’s degree.

Determined to fulfill her dreams, Shapari managed to resume her studies while seeking medical treatment. Her hard work finally bore fruit, and she graduated from the Faculty of Health Science, Gandhara University Peshawar in 2019.

“I am very happy to have graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Physiotherapy. I have no words to thank Dr. Mahboob, who helped me stand on my own feet today. Being a generous Pakistani, he treated me like family and helped me realize my potential,” Shapari shared.

Shapari aspires to help physically challenged persons with the education and skills that she has acquired. “I want to follow in my mentor’s footsteps to bring happiness and hope to others living with disabilities.”

Shapari is seeking an employment that will earn her a decent living. She wants to work at a place where she would not be reminded of her disabilities and also wishes to continue her studies.

She noted that “women face many problems in our culture, but if a woman is physically challenged, her troubles become manifold.” Her message for every disabled person is not to lose hope and not to give up. “Even though it will be hard and you may struggle through it all, let yourself fall.”

Shapari also urges every disabled person to complete their education and make their place in the world, like others do.

“We too have a heart and deserve to live our life to the fullest,” Shapari concluded with a smile.

“Shapari’s hope, determination and success shows that with a little support from family and the community, and with access to professional services like Habib Physiotherapy, persons with disabilities can secure their future at par with the rest,” said UNHCR Head of Sub-Office Peshawar, Mr. Dinesh Shrestha. He added that UNHCR is pleased to continue supporting Afghan refugees living with disabilities, both physical and psychological, as a part of its core protection activities.

By Nariman Bisma