Seven-year-old Ahmad is smiling so hard he has to use his hands to pull his mouth in to a more serious expression. He tilts his head slyly towards his new visitor, a female Handicap International staff member, and then puts his pinky finger to his cheek. “I’m so happy you’ve come because you’re so beautiful,” he says with a wink. His mother puts her hand to her forehead in feigned embarrassment while everyone else bursts out laughing.
“I like flirting with girls,” says Ahmad shyly, holding his hands over his eyes--but with a slight gap between two fingers so he can still see everyone’s reaction. “I’m also happy because I have paper and markers and can draw horses.”
Ahmad slides on to the floor, grabs his markers, and sets to work drawing horses. Horses running, horses jumping over walls, and a horse carrying him on its back—wheelchair and all. “I loooove horses.”
“Ahmad was born happy and smiling and he’s stayed that way ever since,” says Safia, his mother. “Even now—with both legs gone, no father, and no home but this one cold room—he still helps us all remember to smile.”
Safia sits outside huddling by a small fire with her four older children and a few neighbors. They live in a unfinished cement building with no running water or heat on a derelict olive farm. A big stray dog with streaks of mud running its white kinky hair cautiously circles the property, hoping to find a meal amidst the trash heaps. It’s cold and windy on this hillside and there are no shops nearby.
“No,” says Safia. She cannot bare to talk about the events that led them to this place. Her older children and the neighbors whisper a few details. Safia’s husband died in 2009, but the family was still living in relative comfort. Then the war came and a bomb landed behind Ahmad when he was outside playing. His legs were gone below the knees. There were no hospitals or doctors so a very rough amputation was performed on the spot. The family fled to Lebanon in November 2012. Ahmad had to be carried or wormed about on the ground. Then, a few months ago, Handicap International discovered him and brought him a wheelchair.
“Let’s have a look at your legs,” says Lotfi , Ahmad’s Handicap International physiotherapist. Lotfi carefully unwraps the bandages around Ahmad’s stumps and then asks him how they feel. But Ahmad’s more interested in impressing the women in the room with his good looks. He tries on a hat, but decides to do without it. After smoothing his hair back, he puts Lotfi’s bandage scissors in between his teeth like he’s biting a rose.
“Ok, time to get serious,” says Lotfi, biting his lip to hold back his laughter. “We need to get you stronger.”
After doing some strengthening and flexibility exercises on the groud, Lotfi asks Ahmad to get in his wheelchair and come outside. Lotfi wants Ahmad to practice maneuvering his wheelchair on rough ground and around obstacles. Ahmad complies for a little while, but then decides it’s time to race. He pulls the wheels hard and flies from Lotfi to his mother and back again, like ping pong ball. When they were finished, Ahmad asks Lotfi for a kiss.
“My work is difficult because I have so many sad cases,” says Lotfi, who sees about 50 other beneficiaries each week. “However, Ahmad is a joy to work because he is so positive. It feels more like play than work.”
Ahmad agrees that life is better with Lotfi and Handicap International. “I used to be so low on the ground but now I am ‘up.’ I can even go to school,” says Ahmad.
“All of his teachers at school love him,” says Ahmad’s older brother Firas. “He is a very good student and does particularly well in math.”
Safia would like to do more to help her children but she has no income and relies on loans from relatives. Since she and her family have been in Lebanon for more than a year, they also do not qualify for many NGO assistance programs, which tend to be reserved for new refugees. However, the family will soon benefit from enrollment in Handicap International’s cash program. The organization carefully selects vulnerable families and individuals to receive $200 per month for five months. Using bank cards, they will be able to take out cash to pay for whatever necessities they choose: food, rent, heat, school supplies.