x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Life is cruel for Jordan's dwarfs

The country's social development ministry plans to conduct a survey to gauge the number of such people and assess their needs.

Dwarfs Nader Abu Hajar, left, Mohammad Zoubi, centre, and Zeid Yassoufi at the Ammoun theatre in Amman.
Dwarfs Nader Abu Hajar, left, Mohammad Zoubi, centre, and Zeid Yassoufi at the Ammoun theatre in Amman.

AMMAN // Four times a week, Zeid Yassoufi and Nader Abu Hajar perform for school children as the jinni and his assistant. Children usually rush to shake their hands when the curtains come down. But their lives on stage are different than what they are in reality. Both are dwarfs. Mr Yassoufi, 41, is 125cm tall, while Mr Abu Hajar, 21, is even smaller. He is 90cm. "On stage, people accept us, while in reality many poke fun at us," said Mr Abu Hajar, dressed in a jeans outfit that would normally fit a four-year old. The country's dwarfs live in a state of confusion. The government does not recognise them as disabled, and therefore, they are deprived from certain privileges such as specially designed duty free cars or free medical insurance. Society, however, does not see them as normal, said Mr Yassoufi, sitting outside the theatre where he usually performs.

This leaves many dwarfs frustrated. Many do not have employment opportunities. "It is quite impossible to get a job," said Mohammad Zoubi, 31, another dwarf. "I applied dozens of times for a job, but each time I am told, 'we don't have work for you'." "If I apply to work at a restaurant, I cannot reach the sink to wash dishes. In a clothes boutique, if I fold the clothes, I won't be able to reach the shelves, so nobody wants to hire me." Mr Zoubi is married and has a two-year old son. He helps his father at a vegetable stand in downtown Amman in the afternoons. But he spends most of his time avoiding society. "I am either sleeping or watching the satellite TV," he said. "I cannot tolerate people's comments."

His wife is not a dwarf. But he said he proposed to 30 other women - and they all turned him down - before she accepted. The dwarfs' plight came to the forefront recently when the Ministry of Social Development (MSD) said it would conduct a survey to gauge their numbers to assess their needs. It ran ads in newspapers and TV last week asking dwarfs to register and complete forms with personal information. This is the first time that the government has seemed to show an interest in the plight of dwarfs. In the past few years, they have asked the government for duty-free cars designed for the handicapped, but they were turned down because according to the country's regulations only a handicapped person with a disability is exempted from such fees. "They are a marginalised segment of society without any privileges," said Fawziyyah Sabaa, the head of the MSD department that deals with the disabled. "We have come up with new guidelines last month, and we want to see what kind of services we can provide for them, such as helping them set up a society or club or address the customs department to exempt them from car duties," she said. "It is difficult for them to get a job ? because of the society's negative look. They are ostracised and no body hears their voice." Mr Abu Hajar's dwarfism has prevented him from living a normal life. He is illiterate. "I quit school because it hurt me when other kids made fun of me," he said. He sells lottery tickets, but he spends half of the US$7 (Dh25.7) he earns a day on transportation. When it comes to clothes, he buys from children's boutiques, but it is not easy for him to find them without bright colours or cartoon characters. And when a suitor proposed to his sister, his family wanted him to hide so that the future mother-in-law would not change her mind. "I refused and said this is the situation, they take it or leave it," he said. His sister got married eventually. In downtown Amman, Ahmad Abu Ma'ruf, his wife and children live on government aid of US$265 a month. While most dwarfs enjoy reasonably good health, Mr Abu Ma'ruf has complications in his lungs. He is also unemployed. His wife, Nisreen, is not a dwarf, but two of their three children, Mohammad and Rawan, are. They attend private school because they were discriminated against in the public school by other children. The fees are paid for by a wealthy friend. "They receive better treatment at the private school," Mrs Ma'ruf said. "I do not want them to experience what their father had to go through when he was a student. Without the donations, she said the family "cannot afford the fees". When Mr Abu Ma'ruf went to school he said "a gang of boys used to follow me and hurled stones at me which made me quit". Still, the government's interest in the dwarfs has provided some hope. "It is good that the government is taking notice of our needs," Mr Yassoufi said. "We appeal for the king to give us special attention just like other segments of society." Theatre has emboldened Mr Yassoufi ever since he started acting in 1987. His first role was a dwarf in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. However, the roles that the dwarfs play do not always do them justice. Yousif Ammori, a script writer, said he always tries to find unique roles for the plays Mr Yassoufi and Mr Abu Hajar act in. "If Mr Yassoufi is given the role of a head of the family, people will find it strange," he said. In his current role, Mr Yassoufi is a jinni who appears from a well and grants people their wishes. But the wishes have to be for others to come true. If someone wants happiness, he should ask it for others in order to be happy, Mr Yassoufi said. And now he is hoping the government will give the dwarfs needed attention, himself included in this case. smaayeh@thenational.ae