Erbil - Othman al-Kinani is a teacher from Karbala, in central Iraq. Until his mid-thirties he considered himself to be fit and strong, and he never had any complaints about his vision. But that all changed unexpectedly 11 years ago.
“During the first 36 years of my life, I was healthy and could see well,” al-Kinani explained. “When I was 37 years old, I was diagnosed with glaucoma and I later lost my sight completely.”
When al-Kinani first started losing his sight, he admitted that it felt weird because he had lived without a disability for over three decades and then lost his vision in a matter of months. He also wondered how his family would cope with the change, especially his four children who were very young when he was diagnosed with glaucoma. Al-Kinani also worried about his livelihood.
“When I first started working, I had two jobs. In the morning, I was a schoolteacher, and in the evenings, I worked in the private sector,” he recalled. “When I became disabled, I worried about losing my job, and thought about how I could go on with my life without feeling belittled or like I was a burden on others.”
The year that he lost his sight was very difficult for al-Kinani, but it also marked a turning point in his life.
“I went from being a normal person to an outstanding one,” he said. “I consider myself outstanding, because some people with disabilities have a negative perception of themselves, which brings them down. For me, the process was the exact opposite.”
Through determination and a strong support system, al-Kinani was able to continue teaching and find energy for new projects. He discovered another world — the world of the visually impaired, as he calls it — and established an association for others with similar visual impairments in Karbala. He then set up the Amal Karbala Club for people with disabilities of all genders and ages; amal means hope in Arabic.
“We also started a theatre group, unique in Iraq and the Arab world, that has become a registered trademark — the Sarraj Group for the Visually Impaired,” he added.
Kenan Othman al-Kinani is clear about the fact that the change from living with no disabilities to suddenly having one was big, but he views the shift in a positive way; the groups and associations that he started bring him comfort, and he is keen for his positive message to reach those who may find themselves in his situation. Most of all, he credits his strength and success to his family, reserving special praise for his wife.
“To be honest, after God’s help came that of my family, especially my wife, who has played a huge role in supporting me. I like to mention her in every interview,” he said, before adding that he could rise to any new challenge as long as she is by his side.
“Some may say that my words are exaggerated, but my response to them is: Come and live with me and see what I do out of confidence and excellence,” he added. “What I say comes from deep within, and those around me are witnesses to that.”
Though much of his experience would be relatable to someone with a visual impairment in another country, al-Kinani has a special message and words of encouragement for Iraqis in particular.
“I would like to tell all Iraqis that despite the [things] that our country has been going through for a long time, with ongoing difficult situations and an increasing number of people with disabilities, life goes on,” he said. “We must continue working and striving to the best of our abilities and means, so we can be heard.”
“This is my message, conveyed from my beloved Iraq to the rest of the world,” he continued. “Iraq is full of vibrant, diverse people, from different groups and backgrounds, whether disabled or not. My message to the world: look at Iraqis! See how they deal with hardship and how they emerge from the ashes, to prove to the world they are alive and kicking, through it all.”
The work he does through his different associations and cultural groups empowers al-Kinani to be an advocate for those with disabilities, but he knows that part of the routine involves battling stereotypes.
“Stereotypes exist and that’s a fact, but their intensity varies according to culture. For example, some might be prejudiced towards those of us with disabilities and believe that we are to unable to do our jobs properly and that the best thing for us is to stay home,” he explained.
“We have to change this perception – it hurts us because those people do not know our strength and what we can achieve. We are the ones who can bring about this change, as we have proven numerous times.”
This article was written by Vanessa Okoth-Obbo, IOM Iraq Public Information Officer