Şafak Pavey is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. She is charismatic in the true sense of the word, attracting people to her — and to her many good works — by the force of her personality, her knowledge, her charm, and through sheer admiration of her perseverance. Şafak is now coordinator of public relations and strategic communications in the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR. She is responsible for pursuing policies on child rights, education and disability. She and her team have developed employment policies for UNHCR to recruit and retain disabled staff, a policy that will be implemented globally. She works together with UN goodwill ambassadors and supporters like Mick Jagger, Ben Affleck and Angelina Jolie to promote minority and social rights around the world.
Working for UNHCR during the last six years, she started as the consultant for child rights and education from the Middle East to North Africa. Then she was appointed as external relations officer in Iran, which covers both the Afghan and Iraqi refugee situations and repatriation programs. Pavey has also lived in Algeria and worked with Sahrawi refugees for UNHCR while trying to change people’s point of view toward the disabled.
Şafak has also lived and worked in Jordan and other countries. She has done all this despite her own disability. About ten years ago, she lost her left arm and leg as a result of a train accident in Switzerland, and she uses prosthetic limbs. She had a number of operations, mostly in England because Turkey does not have a prosthetic sector except in military hospitals. She attended London School of Economics in a wheelchair. She said she learned to live independently in England. “We need help of course, but disabled people also should also stop feeling like victims, stand for their rights and be ready to live alone.”
After being harassed in many countries she has visited and facing difficulties both for being a disabled person and a woman, she was determined to change the landscape. “The legal system should work in favor of disabled people in the world.”…
[In Turkey] “Disability is like throwing a stone in a lake and the waves keep getting bigger. It affects the entire household of a disabled person. Family members face the same attitude from society. People look at you in another way,” she said. “Everything is segregated. And the sad thing is that there is no concrete action or initiative by the government. Whatever is done in Turkey is done by private individuals.”
She was invited to Turkey in 2003, the European Year for Disabled People, to receive the Presidential Award for outstanding persons with disabilities. But the route to the ceremony was troubled. When she got off the plane she asked for a wheelchair but Turkish Airlines agents informed her that she wasn’t disabled. When she explained that she was on her way to receive an award for being a successful disabled journalist, they explained that the government’s new definition of ‘disabled’ was limited to people who had lost two of the same appendages. Pavey sued the airline and sought a report from a Turkish doctor only to find that it too read that she, in fact, was not disabled. She is full of sad stories but she tells them with a chuckle rather than anger. Her motto is “whatever you experience is an example to others.’ [see my post here for an account of this incident. JW]
“That’s what I faced in my own country,” Pavey said, adding that she was also harassed by security officers at Bushehr Airport in south western Iran. “One of my legs was taken. They took away my passport and said they wouldn’t let me on the flight unless I took off my leg,” she recalled, adding that she understood security measures but it was nonetheless very difficult for her…