A shell blast, and an asylum seeker’s life changed forever

As conflict raged in Tripoli last year, daily life for 22-year-old Sudanese asylum-seeker Mohamed was about to change forever.

He and his brother Yusuf had insisted on remaining in the family’s rented home in the Alhadba neighbourhood of the Libyan ca…

As conflict raged in Tripoli last year, daily life for 22-year-old Sudanese asylum-seeker Mohamed was about to change forever.


He and his brother Yusuf had insisted on remaining in the family's rented home in the Alhadba neighbourhood of the Libyan capital to take care of the property and their possessions, while their parents and sisters moved to a safer area of the city to escape the rockets and shelling.

Yusuf, 17, had gone to buy bread when the house was rocked by an explosion. Mohamed, who had been lying on his bed, was hit by several pieces of shrapnel that ended up lodged in his spine.

After being rushed to hospital, Mohamed underwent an operation to have metal rods inserted into his vertebrae. But the injuries he sustained left him with severe disabilities, unable to move his lower body.

“He changed completely since the incident,” said 24-year-old Khawala, an older sister. “Before, he was very active, always smiling and confident; he was an extrovert. Now, he’s at home and doesn’t want to see us or anyone. He doesn’t want to see people’s pity.”

Due to the volatile security situation and conflict which raged in Tripoli for more than a year before ending in June, many have become newly disabled or injured as a result of booby traps, shelling and improvised explosive devices.

According to the 2020 Humanitarian Response Plan for Libya, of nearly 900,000 people in need of humanitarian assistance within the country, around 15 per cent are living with disabilities, equivalent to some 134,000 people. People with disabilities face many difficulties in Libya. 

“Even on a daily basis, it can be a struggle for people with disabilities to access everyday services, facilities or schools by wheelchair”, said Meftah Lahwel, assistant public health officer for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, in Tripoli.

“By linking refugees to services that are available to provide them with physical and psychological support, we are hoping to help them take them steps forward towards independence – to participate and contribute to their community . They can often feel excluded from opportunities, but like anyone, they have capacities and can contribute in many different ways to their communities.”

For the last few months, Mohamed has been receiving specialized help from UNHCR’s local partner, Handicap International. This includes physiotherapy and psychosocial counselling sessions, some conducted remotely by phone, due to COVID-19 safety precautions.

They also provided Mohamed with a new wheelchair and training on how to use it, which took place in the open grounds of a club for people with disabilities in Tripoli, to ensure health and safety protocols with cases COVID-19 continuing to spike in Libya.

It is hoped the wheelchair will give Mohamed greater mobility as well as a much-needed psychological boost as he regains some of his independence, having been mostly confined to his bed and relying on younger brother Yusuf to manage day-to-day tasks such as bathing.

“It feels good, thank God!” Mohamed said after a test run around the club’s courtyard. “It will help me get in and out of bed by myself, unlike before when my brother had to lift me. I’ll be easing my brother’s burden and I’ll be relying on myself. I can go out more, sit with my friends and life will improve.”

Before his injury, Mohamed enjoyed playing football and went to the gym regularly. After watching other wheelchair users at the club play a game of basketball, Mohammed considered for the first time the possibility of resuming his previous active lifestyle.

"We want to bring him hope and show him his life isn't over."

“I like the atmosphere,” he said. “I want to observe them first, then I would like to come back to play with them. I feel better mentally, I was depressed staying in bed at home. Now I feel better.”

His progress has been carefully monitored by Handicap’s team, which has helped him through a difficult period of adjustment to his new circumstances.

“We want to bring to him hope and show him his life isn’t over; he can rebuild and adapt. Especially by seeing other people like him here at the centre who are taking part in sports activities,” said Handicap International’s psychosocial worker, Kamila Salem.

Mohamed’s injury has placed a heavy strain on his family, who fled to Libya four years earlier to escape fighting in Darfur, Sudan, during which their home was burnt to the ground. Mohamed’s medicines and painkillers are expensive, and his family are finding it hard to pay for the additional private physiotherapy sessions that doctors say will help his rehabilitation.

  • Mohamed is helped by his brother Yusuf (in grey) to test his new wheelchair, with staff from the NGO Humanity & Inclusion in Tripoli.

    Mohamed is helped by his brother Yusuf (in grey) to test his new wheelchair, with staff from the NGO Humanity & Inclusion in Tripoli. © 

  • Mohamed (in yellow) has his photograph taken with other wheelchair users after watching them play a game of basketball.

    Mohamed (in yellow) has his photograph taken with other wheelchair users after watching them play a game of basketball. © UNHCR/Mohamed Alalem

Two of his sisters and his elder brother are working to help pay for the family’s rent and basic living expenses, but it is a constant struggle. The family are grateful for the help they have received from UNHCR and its partners, including food packages, non-food items, hygiene kits, and cash assistance towards rent and other necessities.

Despite the difficulties the family continue to face, and the challenges that lie ahead for Mohamed, his mother Hafsa believes her son has turned an important corner thanks to the support he has received.

“Every day, he’s getting better; we are happy to see he is improving,” she said. “The chair is helping him to help himself. With this care and attention, hopefully things will be better.”

This post was originally published on UNHCR | The UN Refugee Agency.


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