DOUMA — Thousands of Syrians have lost limbs during the country's three-year war. Here in the Damascus suburbs, two men have opened a workshop where functioning prosthetics are fashioned out of found materials.
When Omar al-Ahmad celebrated his 13th birthday this year, he didn't mark the milestone by shopping for new clothes with his father in downtown Damascus, coveting — as he would have done before the war — the uniform of his favorite soccer team on a mannequin in a shop window.
Instead, his gift was the right arm of a mannequin, fished out of rubble by his father and his father's friends.
Omar and his younger brother both lost their arms six months ago, when their street, in the opposition stronghold of Douma, was shelled by government forces.
"We were forced — because of the siege laid on the city for over a year and a half – to come up with ways to provide for ourselves from the things we find around us," says the boys' father, Ibrahim. "A few months ago, I heard that Hajj Abou Salah opened a small workshop to make prosthetics for the residents who have lost their arms or legs, either due to shelling or due to the lack of medication that made amputation inevitable."
Ibrahim went to Salah to ask him to make an arm for his elder son. But Salah was out of material, and suggested carving a wooden arm, or fashioning one out of metal.
"Either would be difficult to use because of its weight, and would have tired Omar," Ibrahim says. "That’s how the search for a store window mannequin began, given that it would fit Omar’s height. Someone told us that we might find one in the rubble of destroyed stores." They managed to find an undamaged arm, and Salah turned it into a prosthesis for Omar's birthday.
Salah, 57, decided to start a pro bono limb workshop nearly a year ago, as government shelling of the Damascus suburbs increases.
"I was visiting one of my injured friends," he says. "The doctor had recommended he walk every day to heal better, but he didn’t have any crutches. Some of his neighbors and friends would take turns helping him walk, but he always felt ashamed asking for help. I thought of making him crutches, but there was no material available. So I put together a crutch made of durable plastic pipes."
Word spread among Ghouta's residents, who, like more than 200,000 other Syrians in besieged areas, have been largely cut off from professional medical assistance. Salah gathered associates, "working with whatever was available, and at our personal expense."
He joined forces with Abou Rushdi, a blacksmith before the war, and opened a workshop. "We started making crutches, then wheelchairs. We tried making prosthetic limbs but we couldn't figure out how to mold the joints."
In December, a man killed by shelling had a prosthetic foot. They were allowed to take the foot, disassembling the piece in order to study how the joint was fitted. "To our surprise," Salah says, "our own methods were very close to the ready-made, high-end prosthetics. And we were able to improve."
An overwhelming demand
The 49-year-old Rushdi says the duo used mannequin pieces to make their early prosthetics, but were soon overwhelmed by demand. They switched to plaster, which also ran out, then to wood and metal, which proved too heavy for proper mobility.
So far, Salah and Rushdi have fitted 54 patients for limbs. "An industrial prosthetic used to cost anywhere between $250 and $600, depending on its quality," Rushdi says. "Today, it costs us about $200 to make one of these prosthetics. We use local material and do not receive any payment — all of the prosthetics we make are offered for free while Salah and I cover the expenses."
The duo hopes to keep working until money runs out, but fellow locals are rising to the task. They've begun donating what they can to the workshop, he says, such as raw materials like plaster, mannequins and even water tanks.
With materials at a premium, they've been forced to be creative. The two are now using the firm, sturdy plastic from unused water tanks to construct prosthetic arms and legs. "I don’t know what will happen when we run out of those," Rushdi admits, "but I’m sure we will find another way."
The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.
Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.
Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."
Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.
Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.
Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.
Oppressive home situations
As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.
Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.
Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.
Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.
"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."
Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."
Lack of spaces
Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.
"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.
The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out
Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.
Lockdowns force coming out
According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.
"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.
Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.
Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.
"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.
The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling
In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.
"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."
Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.
Medical care is dismal
Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.
Isolation triggered my depression
"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.
What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.
During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.
As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."
Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.
- In Northern Colombia, LGBT Rights Meet Indigenous Prejudice ... ›
- LGBTQ+ In Morocco: A New Video Series To Open Minds ... ›
- Why Italy Is So Slow In Protecting LGBTQ From Violence ... ›