Imagine waking up one day to realize that you have only two options: First, leave your home, everything you have built, and move out of the country. Second, stay where you are but risk being killed at any time. This is the decision many refugees encounter at the beginning of their journey. However, within this chaotic situation, the invisible group, refugees with disabilities, face even more significant challenges as they begin this agonizing journey.

Mustafa Rfat is a graduate student and a trainee at leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental and Related Disabilities (LEND) at West Virginia University. He is a passionate advocate for equal rights for people with disabilities. Mustafa came to the U.S. as a refugee from Iraq in 2011. He is currently pursuing his master’s in Public Administration.

Although I was fortunate to have the help of my family, I had to choose the first option. I left my home and everything that I had painstakingly built, from education to social capital. Among the many traumas I have encountered in life, the refugee journey was the most notable. I remember those days I spent counting my last medications, unsure when I would see a doctor again. I remember the questions swirling around in my head: where will I get my medication? Where will I sleep tomorrow? Who will protect me if I get hurt? What will my life look like in a month? Which country will accept me, if any?

For many people, especially those in developed countries, hearing about refugees in the news creates a short-lived response. Some will empathize with our situation but quickly move on, unaware that our needs remain unmet for a long time, often indefinitely.

The exact number of refugees with disabilities is unknown, as is their individual needs and challenges. However, we do know that when people face war, violence, and persecution, they are more likely to develop chronic illnesses, such is in the case of this invisible group. According to the United Nations (UN), the needs of refugees with disabilities are ignored throughout their journey due to the variety of physical, environmental, and social barriers. Furthermore, the same report emphasizes that disabled refugees are more likely to experience “violence, including sexual and domestic abuse, exploitation by family members, discrimination and exclusion from access to education, livelihoods, nationality and other public services.”

Additionally, some of the politics in the United States indirectly impact refugees with disabilities. For instance, the number of refugees who enter the US is far less than the proposed ceiling, which has especially been the case under the current administration. According to the Department of Homeland Security, in 2017, the maximum ceiling was 110,000, but the Trump Administration accepted only 53,691 refugees. The number is now further reduced to 18,000 for the fiscal year 2020, despite the high need for admission. This has created significant ramifications for refugees and refugee resettlement offices, particularly those offices which receive funding based on the number of refugees they accept. Therefore, fewer resettled refugees means less funding for resettlement agencies and consequently fewer services (The National Immigration Forum). This creates disability disparities and prevents refugees with disabilities from reaching their potential. Because refugees receive limited services in such situations, refugees with disabilities, who require more assistance on their journey toward independence, will experience even greater challenges in receiving appropriate services.

It is important to remember that refugees already experience significant challenges, such as language barriers, lack of transportation, and navigating new public systems. The lack of funding for resettlement agencies will make the situation even more difficult. Within these circumstances, refugees with disabilities who do not have formal education are more likely to live in poverty. Those who do not receive appropriate services during the early stages of their resettlement will experience stunted integration and limited future success. For example, when a refugee does not receive necessary medical services due to lack of transportation, interpretation, and assistive technology, they are less likely to seek education or develop regional skills, both of which are crucial components to achieve independence.

In 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted the 2030 agenda for Sustainable Development, which includes 17 distinct goals. Built with the intent of leaving no one behind, the agenda states the need for education, economic growth, data collection of individuals with disabilities, and pushes for effective policy development that includes the needs of this group. This document emphasizes the need for stakeholders to initiate a dialogue among all parties on how to connect and better serve people with disabilities. Building on these goals, every social and healthcare agency should initiate deliberate steps to remove barriers that prevent this group from reaching its goals. We can achieve this by encouraging those providing public services and those within refugee resettlement offices to build formal relationships with one another and modify their services to ensure equal access to resources.

For more information on this topic, please visit the UN website:

Listen to a podcast interview with Mustafa Rfat and disability rights activist Alice Wong, originally published by the Disability Visibility Project: