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Interview with social activist al-Hassan Ali al-Refaie

Nasser Sobhy

10 Dec 2014 3:57 pm

Focusing on the shorter person

Al-Hassan Ali al-Refaie, Secretary-General of the Qaseer (Short-statured) society in Baghdad, is a bombastic speaker with a gift for marshalling his thoughts and ideas when it comes to representing a segment of society that suffers marginalisation in the Arab world—people of short stature.
Al-Refaie, who is 29, studied Islamic politics at Baghdad University, where he gained a Masters degree. An employee with the Iraqi government, he is an activist in defence of persons with special needs.
Mr Refaie believes governments do not recognise that short-statured people have been struggling for years to gain their rights.
Watani talked to Mr Refaie to learn more about this underprivileged sector of society.

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Voicing demands
“It has been my destiny to uphold the cause of short-statured persons since 2004,” Mr Refaie says. “When the Iraqi regime changed, civil society organisations became our allies. They had not existed before in Iraq for many reasons, most of all political.
“Making a new start with Qaseer has meant demanding rights for short-statured people in Iraq. I wish to credit my close friend since my university years Islam Mohamed Eidan al-Huddeiry, my colleague at university who suggested the idea. Because of the technological leap of our modern times, we—as short people—managed to interact through the Internet. We accessed several specialist websites, for example in education, care and transport, and we contacted activists all over the Arab world from Saudi Arabia to Libya, Tunisia and Maghreb, as well as in Europe and America, and recruited many new members with whom we exchanged data and information. We founded counterpart associations, which soon spread to all Arab countries.
“After holding the first convention for short-statured people 2013 and founding an office of the Arab union for short people, we needed to formulate our demands. The main ones were the right to education, the right to health, and the right to move freely in the street without hearing hurtful or ridiculous abuse.
“We wish, through our conferences and meetings with those concerned, to make our voices heard in the Arab World in our demand for full and equal rights, respect and appreciation. We have the right to be active members of society without being marginalised. We short-statured people possess energy and ability that sometimes surpass our counterparts; we have people we are proud of: actors, sportspeople and artists.”

On the large and small screen
Asked about short people appearing on TV and in films, Mr Refaie had this to say: “We are totally in favour of positive media exposure, since we actively seek to be positive elements in society. But we are definitely opposed to being used as tools for mockery, which presents an ugly and defaced image. This has been done already: whenever you see anyone of short stature in the street, the first question is, ‘Are you an actor?’
“I would not hesitate to play the role of a celebrity like al-Jahiz, who was a famous Arab prose writer whose biography tells us that he was of short stature.
“A person of short stature has the right to be a parent, a scientist, an engineer, an artist, or a professor.”
There is no doubt that short-statured people face trials in the Arab world. Mr Refaie explained that many of them were uneducated “because of the legislation that gives the right of education ‘to all’, but does not apply this on the ground. Almost no attempt is made on the ground to include us or cater to our needs. I see it as unfair of society, educational systems, and teachers. Many short people cannot go to university whether in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Tunisia or Maghreb. We managed to report several incidents. I wish to draw attention to the fact that, given adequate education and opportunities, persons of short stature can be a value added to the community instead of a burden if they do not work.”

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Imprisoned in the home
“Apart from the curtailed rights,” Watani asked, “how can you bear the mockery?”
“We can’t be prejudiced against society as a whole, because there are many who respect us. I wish a portion of those who see us on TV would stop mocking us.
Acceptance of the mockery depends on the person and the climate in which he or she is brought up. If he or she was raised in an open-minded family or belongs to an organisation that makes use of his or her abilities, they will readily ignore the taunts.”
Studies show that some families of people of short stature have been known to prevent them from leaving home for as long as 40 years, an imprisonment that had a profoundly negative effect on their mental health.
Soon to be published is his new book which critics call “…the first specilaised book on this [short-statured persons] category and … one of the most important references ever written in this field.”
One problem members of such groups in the Arab World face is the trend to categorise them. This, according to Mr Refaie, is a real handicap. “Some countries consider us persons with special needs, while others view us as persons with disability. Only a third of these countries accept the short statured to be perfectly normal people.
“This confusion has not helped us reach any specific status in the Arab World,” Refaie said. “We are depending on our own efforts to collect the data. In Iraq for instance, there are approximately 8,000 of us, while in Egypt we have found through contacts with other organisations that there are 75,000. In the absence of official figures and a clear recognition of how to define the short-statured persons in the community, these figures are far from accurate.”

Who is the short person?
The height according to which short stature is classified is given in Europe as no more than 130cms for males and 127cms for females, while in the Arab countries we have suggested 135cms for males and 130cms for females.
“I hope that whoever endorses the cause of the short-statured persons—especially the civil societies—makes their interests a priority and helps solve their problems. It is pivotal also to educate the community on the recognition of short persons as perfectly normal, capable persons.”

Watani International
10 December 2014

  



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