The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs (ECA) stands as an advocate for the universal rights of all persons around the world. ECA’s EMPOWER Programs, a series of four separate two-way international exchanges, aim to put disability rights at the heart of our nation’s public diplomacy efforts.
Yasar Hayatkhan was one of 11 people from South and Central Asia selected to participate in one of the four EMPOWER Programs carried out by American Councils. Growing up in Pakistan, Yasar knows firsthand the everyday difficulties of living and working with a disability.
“When I was a kid I could walk, I could run,” explains Yasar. “But when I was 16, I got muscular dystrophy and had to use a wheelchair. So I've gone through all of this. I know the problems a disabled person will face.”
“When there is a will, there is a way. I've been positive all my life and when you are negative even the good things get bad. I have a firm belief that God gives burdens to people who can bear it. I feel like this is not a burden, but an opportunity.”
When Yasar applied to the EMPOWER Program, the application required he initiate a project upon his return home. Without hesitation, Yasar knew exactly what was most important to him and others with disabilities in Pakistan.
“I had problems finding a job when I graduated from university, I just couldn't find a job,” says Yasar. “I was unemployed for almost five years. So I wanted to initiate a project that employed disabled people. “That is why I was placed with Project Search through the EMPOWER Program.”
Yasar spent one-month working with and learning from Project Search in Cincinnati, Ohio.
“Project Search, started in 1996, to train and give employment to young adults with disabilities who graduate from high school and now operates in 250 locations around the world,” says Yasar.
Yasar’s goal is to initiate Project Search in Pakistan to help create opportunities for persons with disabilities to find jobs. In August, Yasar’s American host, Erin Riehle, founder of Project Search, will travel to Pakistan to help him establish the program in his home community.
“I have found many new friends in the United States and they are lifelong friendships,” says Yasar.
While in the U.S., Yasar was heartened by the government’s commitment to accessibility. Upon his arrival, he was given a motorized wheelchair to use throughout the program.
“I was pleasantly surprised for the first three days we were in Washington, DC and I was able to go from one building to another all by myself,” says Yasar. “Everywhere is so accessible. I can't do that in Pakistan. I love the USA because of that.”
Thanks to a donation from the Center for Independent Living (CILO), in Cincinnati, Ohio, Yasar was able to take his motorized wheelchair back to Pakistan.
“I've needed a power wheelchair for so long,”explainsYasar. “It would have been too expensive for me in Pakistan.”
“I want to ask the disabled all over the world to come out of your homes. Come out, because only then can you be really understood.”