Perkins ELP grad puts skills to work in midst of Myanmar crisis

Asma Shilpi, who graduated from the Educational Leadership Program, is providing aid for displaced children with disabilities

Asma Shilpi uses a flashlight to examine an infant wrapped in a blanket.

Shilpi graduated from the Educational Leadership Program at Perkins in 2017.

A graduate of Perkins School for the Blind’s Educational Leadership Program (ELP) is helping to spearhead aid efforts necessitated by a humanitarian crisis in southeast Asia.

Asma Shilpi, a senior instructor and developmental therapist from Bangladesh, has been appointed by her country’s ministry of health and family welfare to help pilot a healthcare center for children with disabilities who have been forcefully displaced from neighboring Myanmar, formerly Burma. The hope is to establish the center permanently after the three-month pilot.

When she’s not at the center, Shilpi travels to refugee camps, where she and her colleagues  a team of healthcare physicians, psychologists and developmental therapists  screen children up to 16 years of age for disability, conduct functional and emotional assessments and provide intervention where necessary.

“I am very confident having been trained at Perkins to work with these children,” said Shilpi. “Not only in the hospital, but also in field situations.”

Just two years ago, Shilpi was one of 11 educators living and working on Perkins’ Watertown campus as part of its ELP, which offers advanced training to special educators and professionals who work with children who are visually impaired with multiple disabilities in developing nations. At the time, she said her goal was to help parents find new hope, adding “we try to show them their child’s strengths.”

Upon graduating from the program in May 2017, Shilpi was thrust into emergency work, arriving home as the conflict in Myanmar was about to explode: Since August 2017, more than 700,000 Rohingya people, mostly Muslim, have sought refuge in Bangladesh to escape what the advocacy group Human Rights Watch calls a “large-scale campaign of ethnic cleansing” perpetrated by Burmese forces.

“This is the first time I am working in refugee camps and their language is totally different than Bengali,” said Shilpi. “We are using interpreters for the work.”

Across the five different camps for which her team is responsible, Shilpi said the most at-risk children are suffering from communicable disease, while emotional trauma runs rampant. Others arrive with pre-existing disabilities, including cerebral palsy, vision and hearing impairment, language delay and more.

Shilpi’s work involves teaching hand-under-hand, a tactile learning technique, sign language and orientation and mobility. She’s also working to create new safety nets for the most vulnerable displaced Rohingya people.

“I developed a network within other organizations that can refer children with disabilities to the proper places,” she said. “I also shared some primary findings with one renowned organization in Bangladesh and proposed that they organize a schooling system for those children who are forcefully displaced.”

She added, “I didn’t have these skills before coming to Perkins.”

Despite the atrocity that forged the need for this work, Shilpi said she remains hopeful, inspired by the children whose lives she touches every day.

“They are very resilient people,” she said. “They are not refugees. They are survivors.”

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