Blind refugee's new life | Guide Dogs NSW/ACT

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12 October, 2015

Blind refugee's new life

Yousef uses his long cane while walking along a footpath

Learning to use a cane for the first time

While the world's attention is focused on the Syrian refugee crisis, Guide Dogs NSW/ACT is helping one refugee adjust to life in Australia after he was forced to flee his homeland when ISIS destroyed his village.

Yousef Hanna, who has been blind for 30 years, arrived in Australia on a permanent visa three months ago and learnt about the Orientation and Mobility services offered for free by Guide Dogs from a migrant case worker.

Mr Hanna is learning to use a long white cane for the first time in his life to move around his environment safely and independently. Guide Dogs instructor, Haylee Tumanik, is supporting the 54-year-old in cane technique and has explained foreign concepts such as what a driveway is and how a pedestrian crossing works as part of the training.

In Syria, Mr Hanna used his sense of hearing and the knowledge of the landscape of his small village, Om Alkeef, to get around. "I was dependent on myself, I knew every single corner of that village," he said.

His safe world was turned upside down about two years ago when he learnt ISIS had wreaked havoc on nearby villages and were heading towards his home. "ISIS was bombing the Christian villages with tanks," he said. Mr Hanna escaped with his brother's family to Lebanon, with just some clothes. All his other possessions were left behind. "We were able to flee before the actual attack," he said.

In Lebanon the family received support from the UN with food and clothing. They applied immediately for permanent residency in Australia as they already had family in the country, who had arrived under similar circumstances.

Born in Syria, Mr Hanna joined the army after finishing school. It was towards of the end of his tenure that he developed the eye disease that would eventually rob him of his sight. He was sent to Russia for treatment for the extremely rare condition, however within three years he was completely blind.

Now living with his brother's family in Fairfield, Mr Hanna, is learning how to move around with a mobility aid, and enjoying the experience. "I like using the cane. There is such a big difference between not having a cane and having one," he said.

An interpreter attends each training session with Ms Tumanik to translate her instructions. Sessions have included walking along the footpath with a cane, how to cross the road safely and using the stairs at the train station. "When we first went into the town, Yousef had never pressed a button at a pedestrian crossing. So I did some training about listening to the way it beeps and where to hold his hand," Ms Tumanik said.

"I meet with him once a week for an hour-and-a-half and cover basic cane technique, but because he is keen to travel, I am starting to do some more in-depth training at stations to allow him to do this," she said.

Mr Hanna said his aim was to eventually live on his own and with the services offered by Guide Dogs he is now on his way.

He has fond memories of Syria, but fears the country will never be the same. "Syria was such a lovely country before the turmoil, but I don't think I will go back. The problem is there is no one to go back to," he said.

ABOUT GUIDE DOGS' ORIENTATION AND MOBILITY SERVICES

  • Guide Dogs NSW/ACT is the leading provider of free orientation and mobility services that enable people with impaired vision to get around their communities safely and independently.
  • While training Guide Dogs is an important part of our work, our most common program is showing people with impaired vision how to safely move through different environments, using a range of mobility aids and electronic devices.
  • Each year our highly trained instructors work with about 4,000 people of all ages to help them achieve their mobility goals. Programs are tailored to meet the lifestyle needs of each individual, and most training is delivered locally, in the person's home, community or work environment.
  • Guide Dogs NSW/ACT receives less than 2 per cent of its funding needs from the government and relies on the generosity of the people of NSW and the ACT to continue helping people who are blind or vision impaired.