When the Tatarinova family fled Ukraine with a baby and a child in a wheelchair, it was a dangerous journey to say the least.
- People with disabilities encounter more barriers than other refugees
- They are not always sure how to access support services in Australia
- A research project aims to assist them in getting the help they need
As the family prepared to take shelter from Russian bombs in a basement, their daughter Polina, who has Spinal Muscular Atrophy, was afraid she would not be able to escape an attack because she can not manage stairs.
Upon fleeing Kharkiv, the family decided to split into two cars and drive for more than three days to the western border along with thousands of other refugees and the army.
Polina's mother Nataliya Tatarinova said they were constantly afraid of being shot.
"The news has already reached us that they are even shooting at civilian cars, so we decided to drive different cars so that there is a better chance that one of us will survive," Ms Tatarinova said.
At one point, they were caught in an air raid and had to run for shelter carrying a two-year-old and Polina.
"At first, I didn't even understand what it was," Ms Tatarinova said.
"I lowered the car window and heard the threat of a missile strike."
Living with a disability as a refugee
Polina Tatarinova's experience was frightening but, unfortunately, not unusual.
According to the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, there were more than 89 million refugees worldwide at the end of 2021.
And while statistics about refugees with a disability were not easy to obtain, it's acknowledged about 20 per cent of the global population had a disability.
Deakin University professor of disability inclusion Angela Dew said refugees with disabilities usually flee their countries because of violence and discrimination.
"I've heard terrible stories from people about hiding in basements and not being able to get out to get food or water and not being able to get medication," she said.
"They are really things that make people realise that life is not sustainable for them in their country."
University of Technology Sydney immigration researcher Laura Smith-Khan said refugees with disabilities encountered more barriers than other refugees.
"Being a refugee will kind of exacerbate issues related to being able to earn an income, being a refugee with a disability might make it additionally difficult to access an income ... so your options for what type of work you can do are quite limited," she said.
Barriers in accessing services
When refugees with disabilities settle in new countries such as Australia, they become eligible for government services such as the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), but they don't always know how to access them.
Professor Dew received a research grant to develop resources that were more accessible and was working with Lebanese refugee Mahmoud Murad, who has a physical disability, to help open up lines of communication with refugees from Syria and Iran.
Before he made it to Australia, Mr Murad spent a lot of time in refugee camps with poor services and no disability access.
"Because the camp area is not friendly for people with disability, it's very hard to access it, to go out and it's very hard to walk around," Mr Murad said.
Dr Smith-Khan said access and low incomes were serious issues for people in refugee camps.
"They're eating into their savings, and they have money to live on in an apartment on the fourth floor but not on a ground floor apartment," she explained.
"So that means that if they have a family member who has a disability, they just basically can never leave their house."
A new beginning in Australia
Since moving to Australia, Mr Murad has received support from the NDIS, which paid for his ongoing physiotherapy and orthotics.
He wants to help other refugees with disabilities understand the benefits of the scheme.
Professor Dew said most refugees with disabilities find Australia's disability supports to be better than what's available in the countries they came from.
"I'd say overwhelmingly people are very positive about the reception that they receive in Australia," Professor Dew said.
"People with disability have often not received any support in their country of origin because of war, or perhaps the country's economically not very well off, and so they're not providing support to people."
Esther Simbi, who came to Australia from Sudan ten years ago, is both a NDIS participant and was strong advocate for its services.
Ms Simbi has post-polio syndrome and received the disability pension once she moved to Adelaide, but found NDIS support was better.
Before getting help from the scheme, she found it hard to take her children to the park because she struggled to keep up with them and said she once had a close call when her daughter ran close to the road.
But she said she did not worry anymore because her NDIS support worker helped watch out for the children and made her feel more a part of the community.
Not all countries equal
Since the Russian invasion, Australia is taking on more Ukrainian refugees, but most of them are seeking shelter in European countries.
The Tatarinova family moved to Spain because of the proximity to a private American school to their new house, but unfortunately Polina's application was rejected.
Ms Tatarinova kept advocating for her daughter, but the school continued to refuse, saying Polina's English comprehension was not sufficient.
Polina is now at a British school where she is among the top students in the native English-speaking class, but the 45-minute journey to school is difficult with her disability.
Barriers to education, employment and access were serious problems for refugees with disabilities.
While Australia seemed to be one of the better countries for disability support, Polina's struggle to access services was shared by countless refugees in other parts of the world.