An Epic Journey to Save Diana
Ten-year-old Diana has cerebral palsy. Her mother and brother carried her across deserts and sea in search of treatment and safety in Europe.
As the navy ship was pulling into the port in Sicily, I could see Diana. She stood out from more than 400 refugees and migrants onboard, rescued while crossing the dangerous Mediterranean waters.
Lying in her brother’s arms, she looked exhausted. Her brother, Abdo, and her mother, Amal, looked worried. They were moved to the front of the queue to get off the boat first.
Diana, 10, was born in Syria with a severe form of cerebral palsy. Her family boarded a flimsy, overcrowded boat in Libya after travelling for nearly a month through the deserts of Sudan and Egypt. They spent less than a day at sea before the Spanish Navy rescued them. Diana’s mother had packed just enough medication to last the journey. She was a mum on a clear mission – to get her daughter treatment and her children to safety.
The family fled Yarmouk refugee camp in Syria – a Palestinian camp of 18,000 people which has frequently been the focus of attacks and bombings. The never-ending sounds of war stressed Diana, which her mother believes led to more fits. The fragile situation in Yarmouk meant her medication was hard to find, food was frequently scarce and the family struggled to survive.
It was particularly hard for Amal, thrown into the role of single mother after her husband left for Europe in 2013 in the hope the rest of the family could be relocated through official channels. But this summer, Amal decided that she could no longer wait.
Diana, Amal and Abdo are among 137,000 people who crossed the Mediterranean Sea into Europe during the first six months of 2015. One third of these men, women and children were from Syria.
The decision to take one’s children on a long, dangerous journey is unimaginable for any parent, but worse when the child is at serious risk of having seizures.
“I was worried my daughter would have a fit and I wouldn’t be able to calm her,” said Amal. “When she had fits in Syria I used to carry her with my son Abdo to the hospital, where they would give her an injection of Valium to calm her down.”
A different form of relief Amal also packed was videos of Diana’s friends recorded on her mobile phone. Those few short clips were Diana’s sole entertainment during their month-long trek in the desert. The joy Diana shows every time the videos are played is infectious. She even gets up to dance when a song she recognizes blasts out of the phone.
“I was worried my daughter would have a fit and I wouldn’t be able to calm her.”
Amal always dreamt of having a girl, and was initially shocked to find out her daughter had cerebral palsy. It took her years to understand Diana’s needs and learn how to cope with the condition.
“Without her even asking for anything, I know what Diana wants – hungry, tired, sick,” Amal explained. “She gets pain from many parts of her body – her stomach, teeth. I would know that her teeth hurt her or that her stomach is hurting her.”
Diana’s brother, 17-year-old Abdo, is also very caring. He is clearly attached to his sister and acts as her protector. In the desert Abdo played with Diana, on the boat he carried her, in the tent he danced and clapped to entertain her. For now preoccupied with his sister’s well-being, he still dreams of becoming a lawyer.
I come back the next day to see the family. They had slept overnight in a tent at the port reception centre waiting for the identification procedures to be completed.
Diana had a fit that morning in front of all the other new arrivals. Abdo rushed her inside the tent knowing how much Diana hates the attention her convulsions attract.
“When I see girls her age playing, I feel very upset that my daughter cannot play.”
I asked Amal what she loves most about Diana. “Her warm-heartedness, she is very kind. She is so kind, she would kiss you, plays with you, makes you love her.”
Diana recognized us from the day before. She smiled, shook our hands and invited us to clap along to the songs she was listening to. She loves to dance, clap and just have fun.
Amal knows there is no cure for cerebral palsy, but wants her daughter to be seen by good doctors and to go to schools that will help her develop better communication skills.
“Her treatment means she could understand other girls and play with them. When I see girls her age playing, I feel very upset that my daughter cannot play.”
Over the two short days I spent with this family, I witnessed an abundance of love and unity.
The last I saw of them was boarding a train in Sicily, heading to Milan. An uncertain journey awaits them to reunite with Diana’s father.