Walking down the road on my way to work, I wonder if my silk blue top matches my dark blue skirt. The heels are a little too high, I think to myself, the pain is definitely going to kill me by the end of the day. From tomorrow, I make a promise to myself, I will wear flats. Got to rush to Nine West after work and pick up those beautiful sandals I saw on display the other day.
A man somewhere in his 40s in another part of the world, is rushing as well to get to work. As the only working member in his family of 7, his meagerly pay will somehow have to get his family by. He has little time to think of much else when minutes later, he is released from his responsibilities forever. An Israeli soldier rushes to him from nowhere and brutally kills him for being a Lebanese civilian under Israeli occupation. A time in the day of a man where such incidents are a part of daily existence:
Beruit, War of Israel, 1982.
One after another, all of this man’s 5 children are forced to leave school, most of them still in elementary schools, to start working on odd jobs and support each other. Years later while still trying to make sense of it all and still trying to cope with their father's brutal murder, tragedy strikes again. A new war starts between Palestine and Lebanon, refreshing their barely healed memories of senseless, brutal killings and the horrors of living through an irreversible emotional damage all over again. Wafa, the youngest sibling in the family at the time at only 9 years of age, and her older sister, Hiyam, hold on to whatever little happiness life offers to them in a nation stripped of things others take for granted. Desperately seeking happiness in life's simple pleasures, the two, while chatting with each other in the balcony of their home, a bomb rips through their house, snatching Wafa's leg away forever and damaging Hiyam's leg permanently. The hospital becomes their home for the next 1.5 years to come.
Yet. They find hope. They are alive. Perhaps the only thing one is thankful for each day in a war torn nation. Where the confusion of an electric blue silk shirt not matching with the dark blue skirt and the pain from wearing 4 inch heels seems nothing more than a pathetic joke.
March 2007. Today, at 47 years of age, having lived all her life with horrific childhood memories and a crippling leg pain that forces upon her, regular hospital visits till date, Hiyam Baker, the older of the two sisters stands tall, even in her wheelchair. HPR is humbled, yet proud to announce Hiyam Baker from Beruit, Lebanon, as the Hero of the month.
It takes a person who has been through enough suffering to understand another's suffering. And it takes the strength of a lion (in this case, a lioness) to do something about that suffering: for your own self, and for another. In a society where physical disablity is almost looked down upon, where getting a job, earning your own livelihood, getting married is not easy for a disabled person, where Hiyam’s own sister, Wafa, who had lost her leg in the explosion and faced a strange sense of humiliation for being a woman without a leg, life can come to a standstill with little or no support and acceptance from others. What happened to her years ago, for no fault of hers was not going to let Hiyam down. Nothing and nobody was going to chalk out her fate, not even the odds of a life granted to her by the sheer fluke of not being killed by a bomb.
Hiyam decided to change her own despair into hope and stood up for the rights of the handicapped.
The right to be independent. The right to live with dignity. The right to be equal and to be accepted. Enough with having helpless people falling prey to the societal stigma attached with handicap, Hiyam decided against her own marriage, altering her life and dedicating it to people with physical disabilities. She was on a mission to bring their confidence and self-worth back. She had also had enough of the so called charitable institutions, where everyone was out to make money. "What kind of charity is that, then?", she asked. "They are all out to get your money. What then, does that mean for people who want help but can't afford it?" For the days and years to come, she immersed herself in working toward stopping the dependency that crept into the very being of disabled people's minds by mentoring them continuosly.
For the past four years, she has also been running her own charitable association, The Darb Al Wafaa. Any financially weak person with a disability who could not afford a living till now, with not even the basic education or skills to be self-sufficient, is today free to walk into her centre to receive training in making handicrafts, and other forms of art that helps them get a job and earn their own livelihood for the very first time - And Hiyam does all this at no charge whatsoever.
More precious than the training itself, is the confidence she is bringing back to people, giving them the wings to fly for the very first time! Guiding them constantly, reiterating to them again and again, the importance of living with dignity, and to be self reliant, Hiyam has become a mother-figure to all. For the very first time, the people who have been training under her, are finding jobs for themselves, and are starting to earn their own livelihood. Organizing picnics for the disabled along with the able bodied, she also hopes for more understanding and respect toward the disabled, and the stigma to fade away one day.
Wafa, Hiyam’s younger sister who eventually went on to complete her education and worked for many years, had to give up her job as she wanted to watch her own two extremely beautiful children grow. With the current political tension rising in northern Lebanon, they are now hearing of fresh wars hitting the area soon. Where they live, incidents of car bombs killing scores of people are till date a regular feature, and Wafa worries constantly for the lives of her family, spending every minute with them. To describe the fear of living in a country that is constantly gripped under war threats and bombings is something that is next to impossible. Her children, still small, will have to be told to live under constant security, with no freedom till they grow up. Until then she must keep them safe under her wings for the longest time, hidden from their reality.
For Hiyam, life can not be stopped. She must continue what she has started, even if it is on a day to day basis. It is not in her hands to stop wars and explosions and to stop people from hating another, no matter how desperately they may want it all to end. But she can and does live with a fighting spirit amongst all this, and gives everyone else around her the will and the tools to do the same.
Her only challenge today? To give in to the people's demands whose lives she's touched. "If Hiyam does not go out with us for the picnic, then our picnic is cancelled. There will be no celebration of any kind without her. She is our family, a mother to all of us. We are nothing without her."
Yes, there are just a few demands that she must meet that determined members of her association all resonate! Hiyam now teaches painting to little children, as a wave of hope and happiness for the youngest generation growing up in a nation that is unsure of its own future.
We salute you, Hiyam Baker.
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