#childsafety | Life in Gaza With Down Syndrome

This wasn’t 12-year-old Ibrahim Hammad’s first war, but his parents said it was the first war he’ll remember. The youngest of five children, Ibrahim was born in Gaza and has never left. Outside of narrow exceptions, Gaza residents are unable to leave the 140-square-mile territory. Ibrahim has Down syndrome, and his disability is apparently not worthy of an exception. There are therapies and services outside Gaza that Ibrahim cannot access.

I’d never met Ibrahim before we spoke last week, but his face was familiar to me. Down syndrome is one of the most common intellectual and developmental disabilities. His round face and almond-shaped eyes are characteristic of the condition. He looks very much like my friends’ children, siblings, uncles, and aunts with Down syndrome. When we spoke, his hair was freshly cut and combed, parted the same way as his father’s. He loves to imitate his father, a professor at Al Aqsa University Palestine named Abd Al Qader Hammad. Sometimes, Ibrahim will go on Zoom and even pretend to give university lectures. When Ibrahim smiled at me and waved, I couldn’t help but smile and wave back.

I spoke with Ibrahim and his father the first morning of the cease-fire, their words translated from Arabic to English by Ibrahim’s cousin, Nour. Like many people with Down syndrome, Ibrahim struggles with speech, but he excitedly listed his friends for me—Hussein, Karam, and Nabeel—and told me he loves video games. His favorite is a multiplayer battle royale called PUBG. When he grows up, he said he wants to be a professor just like his father, or perhaps a movie director or a businessman. “Obviously this is not yet possible in Palestine, but you never know what the future will look like,” Hammad told me.

Almost everywhere Hammad goes, Ibrahim goes, too—to parks, to the university, to weddings. “Everyone in Gaza knows Ibrahim well.… I refuse to see anyone looking down on Ibrahim just because he’s a child with Down syndrome,” Hammad said. He noted that his attitude is still uncommon: “Unfortunately, the society is not yet accepting of people with disabilities and people with special needs as a normal part of the community.”

Beyond stigma, it is difficult to get adequate medical treatment and disability support in Gaza, according to a 2020 report from Human Rights Watch. Bombs destroyed or damaged 17 hospitals and clinics and interrupted the already strangled importation of medical supplies. Health spending is significantly lower in Gaza than in Israel, and there are few specialists. It is difficult to provide relief work. One NGO I spoke with was worried that if they helped me find a source, they might be prevented from entering Gaza, where they provide some disability services. “Gaza lacks people who are specialized in treating and helping people with Down syndrome,” Hammad said with his arm slung over Ibrahim’s shoulder. Ibrahim watched him speak, occasionally smiling or sticking out his tongue.

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