Huda Dahan’s office looks almost like any other – files, papers, a computer  and printer, in addition to some books in different languages fill the space. What stands out is a bed and various kinds of equipment and medical instruments lying on it.

Huda Dahan’s office looks almost like any other – files, papers, a computer  and printer, in addition to some books in different languages fill the space. What stands out is a bed and various kinds of equipment and medical instruments lying on it.

Lamed by polio, Dahan performs her work from a wheelchair. Along with a number of colleagues who live with various forms of disabilities, Dahan founded a non-profit organisation called Don’t Despair, which later turned became a profit-making business that sells discarded plastic items. The organisations’s profits are distributed among people with special needs in the northwestern port city of Zuwara.

“I know full well what it means to be disabled,” says Dahan. “Disability prevented me from continuing my studies, but thanks to my strong will, I overcame physical challenges,” says Dahan. “During treatment, I traveled a lot. I now speak English and Italian and can use the computer and the Internet.”

Dahan used her newfound knowledge to communicate with specialised local and international foundations. During a workshop abroad, organisers suggested she set up an organisation for special-need individuals, chaired and run by special needs persons. In 2003, upon her return to Libya, Dahan implemented the idea, and a number of her disabled colleagues joined her.

Hakeem Abu Shawashi, a founding member who has muscular dystrophy says that many disabled people welcomed Dahan’s suggestion at the time. One of the organisation’s main objectives is to “protect the disabled and raise parents’ awareness about how to best deal with their special needs children, including social integration.” The group setup the first special needs observers team during the municipal elections in 2014.

Profit-making enterprise

The sustainability of their project was a major concern. “The idea of collecting discarded plastic items and selling it was inspired by a friend engaged in a workshop for special-need persons,” says Dahan.

In the early stages, Abu Shawashi explains, the members decided to collect the caps of discarded plastic bottles and sell them to a recycling factory. The generated money was used to buy equipment or hire training and development consultants, in coordination with a Tunisian factory. This idea, however, faced first the difficulty of transporting the collected items to Tunisia because they did not have enough healthy members to handle the task.

“Afterwards we contacted local factories and sent them the first shipment of our collected plastic caps,” says Dahan. “We used the money to buy wheelchairs.” The members’ main focus was on the equipment quality, because “the wheelchairs distributed by the government are usually not good and do not work for a long time. Besides, distribution of these chairs has stopped since 2015.” The organisation has also provided six children with wheelchairs, which are not distributed by the government.

Culture of cooperation

Over time, the organisation’s members have promoted  “a culture of cooperation with special needs persons, cleanliness, and protection of the environment among schoolchildren.” They coordinated efforts with school administrations to provide special baskets for collecting plastic caps. The cleaning company of Zuwara Municipality promised to transport the collected caps and offered the baskets. “To encourage children, a prize was announced to those who collected the largest quantity of caps,” he added.

Plastic caps piled up, which urged the community to collect whole bottles, not only the caps. They recently signed a contract with a local factory in Zuwara, which accepted to transport the collected quantities with the labor cost to be deducted from the sales.

“We want to have our own income rather than ask for help,” says Dahan. “Therefore, we had to restructure our project, address the errors and make sure the project wouldn’t fail.” Their final idea covered all expenses from the generated profits, including the cost of expensive medicines for people with neurological diseases.

Modest support

The number of people with special needs officially registered in Zuwara, according to Adel Andary, chairperson of the social security fund, is 568 cases, classified by type of disability. They now receive monthly government aid of LYD 450 (US$ 100), which can hardly cover the cost of medication and other needs, according to Andary.

Before 2015, the office used to receive a large amount of equipment, including wheelchairs, crutches, and diapers and distributed them to those registered in the city on priority basis. The office director agreed with Dahan that government wheelchairs were of low quality and often unavailable today due to the crisis that has blocked shipments into the country for over one and a half years.

Road crisis

Society member Rawad Al-Hamisi, 30, who is a paraplegic, raised the idea of publishing a news release, after some specialized training courses. “We brought out this publication for a while, as a tool to reach as many people as possible,” he says. “We, however, had to stop it, due to a lack of financial and logistical support – we needed a van to carry us and our wheelchairs, and there was a lack of special lanes on the main roads,” he adds.

The difficulty in moving in public places urged special-need persons in Zuwara to protest early this year, demanding government officials and community members to allocate special routes for their wheelchairs in public places. The protests yielded a positive response, according to Abu Shawashi, who added: “We recognize the support of a number of private and public parties, but we still have a long way to go.”

Zeitouneh Mua’amar, a Municipal Council member in Zuwara, says her council provides every possible support to the Don’t Despair organisation. The Council asked the city recycling plant to cooperate and also urged the local cleaning company to support the project. Special lanes allocation, however, still remains a difficult issue because the city’s roads were never designed, taking this issue into account.

Despite these difficulties and the need for an adequate place for the collection of used plastic, Dahan and her fellow Don’t Despair members are still heavily engaged in collecting and classifying their output, as well as distributing the returns among people with special needs.

“We are still in the early stages of our project,” says Dahan. “Establishing a society and creating a project to support our efforts and fulfill our hopes is a way of holding on to life.”