By Sally Bisharat, Communications Specialist

Research shows that children can have a great impact on and shape the lives of their siblings. Mark Feinberg, a Research Professor of Health and Human Development at Penn State University, says that “Sibling relationships influence children’s adjustment and development about as much as parenting does”. A quality sibling bond can have a positive effect on the mental and physical health of the children, including siblings of children with disabilities.

Having a sibling with disabilities is a reality many children are faced with including 18-year-old Farah Mkheimer from Zarqa, Jordan. Farah was only three when her sister Aya was diagnosed with Down Syndrome. “I remember when she was born, I was so excited I was going to have a sibling!” she said. She realised soon and at a very young age however, that having a sibling with disabilities presents many challenges.

Aya grew up a happy child in a loving and supporting home. Her family incorporated her needs into their normal lives and encouraged her to express what she is capable of. However, this is the opposite of what she experienced when she started school and began interacting with her peers who bullied and harassed her consistently.

Most students at schools do not know how to interact with disabled kids and this, to a large extent, falls on the shoulders of their parents and community. This is when Farah realised that such challenges come with great opportunities and hers was dedicating her time to raise awareness about Down Syndrome and educating students on how to interact with individuals with this disability.

Farah’s efforts, along with the support of her mother, influenced the behaviour of Aya’s peers who became more considerate and supportive of her. However, even though she was able to create a positive change at school and in her sister’s life, Farah was unable to change the way her surrounding community’s perspective which labeled her sister as disabled, and thus had serious effects on Aya’s mental health. Aya reached a point in which she refused to leave the house and interact with people. She lost all of her self-confidence and became isolated.

Farah sought external help to find a solution to the psychological setback her sister suffered from. She looked for several programmes that might offer the help needed until she finally found and enrolled in the Maharati Programme (“My Skills” Programme). The programme, which is implemented by the Jordanian Ministry of Youth in partnership with Generations For Peace and with support from UNICEF, seeks to promote long-lasting positive behaviour-change through a sustained series of activities. Through the programme, Farah started learning new life skills that were essential to Aya’s struggle and therefore she started teaching Aya everything she learned to improve her self-confidence.

Farah and Aya filming educational videos at home raising awareness of COVID-19 and how to protect oneself that they share on online platforms

Aya joined Farah in several training sessions from the Maharati Programme until the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Even though all schools and youth centres closed, the Maharati Programme continued to deliver its sessions online which encouraged Farah and Aya to get more involved in technology and create their own awareness sessions about the virus through educational videos filmed by Farah and presented by Aya.

During the past few months, Aya began to engage positively with her peers, increasing her confidence and looking forward to spreading awareness amongst her community about the impact and potential children with disabilities can have.

This whole experience has changed how both Farah and Aya perceive life matters and challenges and confirmed the power youth have in transforming community perceptions positively.

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