When children living in an orphanage grabbed at her hands and
begged to be returned to their parents, Meaghan Starkloff realized
just how different the culture is in Azerbaijan.
Meaghan journeyed this summer to the small country on the
Caspian Sea as an ambassador for disability rights. She found that
in a country still struggling with its own independence,
independence for the disabled is still a dream.
The trip was sponsored by Mobility International, a student
exchange program. Six American students and two leaders traveled to
the former Soviet republic for a month to see how the disabled live
and to share ideas with their hosts for promoting independence.
The students stayed with families in the capital city of Baku
and visited orphanages, nursing homes for the disabled and
disability-rights organizations almost daily.
For Meaghan, 15, a sophomore at Notre Dame High School,
promoting the rights of the disabled is a family goal. Her parents,
Colleen and Max Starkloff, are well-known for their
disability-rights work. Max Starkloff, who is disabled, is
president of Paraquad, an organization that helps people with
disabilities to maintain independent lifestyles. Meaghan has spoken
on disability rights at conferences in Japan and Chicago.
Coming from this background, she was dismayed by the treatment
of disabled people in the former Soviet republic.
Poverty is rampant in Azerbaijan, which declared its
independence when the Soviet Union broke up in 1991. Very few
Azerbaijanis own their own homes, Meaghan says. People live in
apartments that are cheerfully decorated and spotlessly clean
inside but are old and crumbling outside.
Although the group found the hosts to be friendly and generous,
the threat of violence on the streets forced the students to travel
with bodyguards. The peace between the Muslim Azerbaijani and the
Christian Armenian populations in the Karabakh region is uneasy.
Disabled people often bear the brunt of these social problems,
Meaghan says. Azerbaijanis with disabilities, whether physical or
mental, slight or profound, are segregated from the rest of society
to live in institutions, she says.
Children born blind or deaf are immediately taken from their
families and housed in orphanages specifically for disabled
children. These practices are accepted by most Azerbaijanis,
"When a child is born with a disability, it's automatically
taken away from its parents and put in an orphanage," she said. "In
this country we'd be saying, `Hey, wait a minute here,' but over
there, it's a rule."
Some of the most heart-rending moments of the trip occurred
while visiting orphanages. Some children's homes are filled with
children whose parents have been killed in the fighting in Karabakh. …