Footprints: Disabled, but far from helpless

Published November 24, 2015
The words of Tahera Yousofi’s teacher:‘You have to work harder to prove that your body may have limitations, but your mind doesn’t,’ have served as the catalyst for the rest of Yousofi’s life.—Photo by writer
The words of Tahera Yousofi’s teacher:‘You have to work harder to prove that your body may have limitations, but your mind doesn’t,’ have served as the catalyst for the rest of Yousofi’s life.—Photo by writer

KABUL: Staring out of the car window along the bumpy, unpaved roads of west Kabul, Tahera Yousofi, 29, spots to an all-too-common sight: a beggar woman in a blue burqa. The streets of the capital are filled with hundreds of people just like her.

But to Yousofi, the anonymous woman is a reminder of where her own life could have gone. “I could have been her,” she says.

Yousofi was a young girl when the battles between the Afghan Taliban and Ahmad Shah Massoud left her orphaned and disabled.

“I was sitting by the window with my feet under a blanket when all of a sudden I heard a sound that seemed to be getting closer and closer,” Yousofi says of that fateful day in 1998. The rocket killed her parents and brother who were working outside at the time; Yousofi lost her right arm and left leg.

Her surviving family members, including her two younger sisters, tried their best to create a sense of normality for her, but life as one of the estimated 400,000 Afghans rendered disabled by the decades-long conflict was not easy.

Initially, Yousofi thought that with the help of her family, she could overcome her disability, but when she found out that her parents and brother had died, her despair worsened.

“I was in the hospital when my cousin came and said he had just returned from the funeral,” she says. She asked whose funeral it had been.

“Your parents and your brother,” her cousin said, confused by the question.

It was then that Yousofi realised just how much her life had changed.

Yousofi’s paternal uncle, who became her guardian, tried to maintain a sense of order for her. At 15, a year after she had been given prosthetic limbs, he enrolled her in school.

“I only agreed to go because I thought it would be a good distraction from the thoughts running through my mind,” Yousofi says now. But the social pressures of being in a classroom with 20 able-bodied girls left her feeling like an outcast. “No one wanted to sit by me. Wherever I sat, the other girls would move to the opposite side,” she explains.

Realising that she was giving in to the feelings of alienation, Yousofi’s teacher gave the young girl advice that she says sticks with her to this day.

“She said: ‘You just have to work harder to prove to them that your body may have limitations, but your mind doesn’t.’”

Those words served as the catalyst for the rest of Yousofi’s life. Having embraced school, she began to look at her teachers as mentors. “I would look at them and say one day, I too will wear that uniform,” she tells me.

After years of hard work, Yousofi’s dream came true. In 2013, she graduated from an education faculty in Kabul.

The professional triumph of finally realising her dream of becoming a teacher informed her resolve. It was self-sufficiency and personal fulfilment that kept her from accepting government assistance — between 1,000 and 1,200 Afghanis a month — that is offered to the nation’s disabled population.

“I’ve learned that you can never expect assistance — even from the government,” she says.

The process involved Yousofi providing countless documents to numerous ministries in Kabul to prove she was eligible. After running around for almost a week, she gave up her quest for benefits, which amounted to $17 in monthly coupons.

“I have a job. I am capable. I don’t need to stick my hand out,” she muses.

More than physical challenges, Yousofi says her life continues to be bogged down by social problems. After her uncle’s death, Yousofi and her sisters, 17 and 20, moved in with her cousin Ramazan. Here, life initially went well but eventually his wife’s resentment towards the sisters became too much to handle.

So recently, after saving their wages, including the money her sisters earned from weaving carpets and shelling almonds, the three Yousofi sisters purchased a small plot of land. And with assistance from the Norwegian Refugee Council in Afghanistan, they built a home for themselves.

Despite all she has achieved, Yousofi says she can’t help but sometimes give into insecurities. But even with those momentary lapses, she says she is proud of the strides she has been able to take.

“I’ve learned that it’s not the body that matters,” she muses. “People can take that away at any moment, but what no one can ever take from you is your mind.”

Having become like the educators she had looked up to as a young girl, Yousofi now tries to serve as a role model for other young girls like her.

“There’s a girl in my class who has problems with her eyes. I look at her and see myself as a child. So one day I took her aside and said: ‘If ever you face any trouble with the other girls, come to me, I’ve been there.’”

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2015

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