May 20, 2024

Azaz, Syria – With a quick, confident step and a wide smile, Shaima Hilal walks through the streets of Azaz in the northern countryside of Aleppo, stopping every few seconds to respond to people greeting her.

The young woman who arrived in the city four years ago has quickly become a popular figure.

Many people know her not only for her humanitarian work in psychological support, case management, and sponsoring orphans, but also as a charismatic character who earned their respect.

Shaima, 33, has overcome all possible vulnerabilities in a conservative society; she is a woman displaced by war who is her family’s sole breadwinner, and she lives with a disability.

She is also a college student, a humanitarian worker and an ambitious entrepreneur.

What is a disability?

“I belong to the category of ‘people with disabilities’, but I don’t feel that way,” Shaima told Al Jazeera.

She was born without a right thigh bone and learned to walk with the help of a crutch when she was three, she always sits with her crutch near her.

Her missing limb has not slowed her down, and when Shaima is walking down the street, it is practically impossible to notice.

Shaima Women's Day 2024
Shaima went back to school after 13 years to study special education and she juggles her coursework with volunteering and her entrepreneurial project [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“When I was young, I was faster than all the other kids and was the fastest climber. I didn’t feel that I was facing any challenge or difficulty.”

While she has adapted to living with her disability, Shaima is well aware of how difficult it is for others living with disabilities in Syria, a demographic that has reached 30 percent of the population aged 12 and above, according to United Nations estimates.

So she chose to study “special education”, a branch of education for people living with disabilities, as soon as it was available at the University of Aleppo.

“I didn’t think I would be able to be back at school 13 years after dropping out,” said Shaima, who had to quit school when the Syrian war broke out, adding that she is determined to complete her certification and work to help people.

As a child growing up at home, Shaima’s parents treated her like any other girl her age, not letting her feel that she was less able than any other child.

“I never say that I can’t do something, nor do I say that something is impossible to do.”

During Syria’s 13 years of war, the number of disabled people in Syria increased to twice the global average as a result of the injuries suffered by hundreds of thousands.

Shaima Women's Day 2024
Shaima loves working with children at the Violet organisation [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

Shaima’s 20-year-old brother Muhammad, whose lower limbs were paralysed when he was injured in an air raid in 2016, was one of them.

Shaima spends a lot of time talking to Muhammad and discussing options with him of how he can achieve his goals and continue his life in a way that fulfils him.

“I’m [still] trying to help my brother Muhammad overcome his disability,” said Shaima, adding that the shock her brother suffered was severe, but he was able to pull himself together and also began learning computer-based design, despite having dropped out in primary school.

It suits you

Shaima visits refugee camps to work with children, assessing their needs and working with them on expressing themselves and overcoming obstacles, through her work with the Violet organisation, an NGO that supports education and development.

Her cheerful presence and spirit help her lead activities for children, standing in the middle of a group of children who have been forced to grow up prematurely by war, displacement, and poverty, she allows them to smile for a while.

Hearing from people she was able to help always gives Shaima a boost. There was even a woman who named her daughter after her, telling Shaima that she hoped her daughter would be as loving and charitable as she is.

Shaima Women's Day 2024
Shaima named her store Bilbaqlik (This Suits You) [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

“That had a big impact on me,” Shaima said with a shy smile on her face.

Besides her volunteer work and studies, Shaima is an entrepreneur with a shop selling a rainbow of coloured hijabs, arranged along the walls in bright groupings.

She hung a sign above the door that reads Bilbaqlik (This Suits You), which is the name of the shop, and below it, she wrote enthusiastically “Amazing hijabs”.

“The store was a dream of mine since I was young. When I got the lease, I was overwhelmed with joy”, Shaima said proudly.

Shaima does not feel like what she has accomplished is anything special, as far as she is concerned, she is working and studying like a lot of young people in the northwest.

She also believes that the secret of her success so far is the support her family has provided, especially her father, who died last year but who she feels is always with her, encouraging her to this day.

Shaima is working to turn her small store into a brand, even if that comes far off in the future, so she is not planning on slowing down any time soon.

“In my opinion, a woman should never stop at a certain limit, but rather start with what is available to her and continue dreaming, and whenever she accomplishes a dream, she must raise the ceiling of her ambitions higher and higher.”

Shaima Women's Day 2024
Shaima among a rainbow of hijabs in her shop [Ali Haj Suleiman/Al Jazeera]

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