HANDS’ packing lists for Americans traveling to Egypt always includes “a sense of humor.”  Greg Polman packed plenty of it for his trip to Cairo with HANDS past February.

During their travels around Cairo, Greg–who is visually impaired–and the HANDS team, disembarked from and returned to the bus several times each day.   Though he started the day with a seat in the back, each time he returned to the bus, he was moved further and further to the front by his well-meaning colleagues until he was at last seated next to the driver.  Greg turned back towards the group, smiling from behind his trademark dark sunglasses. “At this rate, the next time we get back on the bus, they’ll ask me to drive!”

As the Senior Vice President of Public Policy of an organization that serves visually disabled persons in Chicago, Greg recently participated in HANDS’ Professional Fellows Program (PFP), a US Department of State funded program focused on empowering young professionals from Egypt and Tunisia. Greg mentored one of the Egyptian PFP fellows, Maged Ramzi, last fall during Maged’s fellowship at the Chicago Lighthouse for People who are Blind or Visually Impaired.

This past February, Greg had the opportunity to visit his Egyptian protégé and learn about the progress being made for those with disabilities in Egypt as part of the Professional Fellows Program. This initiative connects American professionals working as disability rights advocates with their Egyptian and Tunisian counterparts and allows each group to share their professional expertise and best practices. His impression of Maged’s work with the visually impaired in the Upper Egyptian province of Minya: “Maged is a leader who goes above and beyond with new programs and ideas.  The commitment of the various NGO professionals we met was almost beyond words.”

Organized in conjunction with HANDS’ local partners CEOSS in Egypt and FATH in Tunisia, the program offered American fellows the opportunity to see the struggles and progress of disability rights advocates in each country and share their knowledge and expertise with wider audiences in the host countries. The group of Americans who participated in this round of HANDS’ Professional Fellows Program hailed from Chicago, where the Egyptian and Tunisian participants completed their month-long fellowships in fall 2013.  The US fellows, all experts in disability rights, represented a range of related fields ranging from special education to integrative extracurricular programs to legal support for people with disabilities.

American participants visited integrated public schools as well as special schools for children with disabilities, met with government officials, held workshops and presentations addressing the rights of persons with disabilities, and shared their own professional experiences and knowledge.

The Tunisian and Egyptian program alumni also had the opportunity to introduce their American colleagues to their organizations and the progress that they have made since their time in the United States.  Some of the projects the North African fellows have been implementing since their return include public awareness campaigns on the value of integrated public schools, fundraising proposals, and professional trainings for their Egyptian and Tunisian colleagues on how to lobby for articles on rights for people with disabilities in their countries’ new constitutions.

HANDS would like to thank the US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and other generous HANDS donors for making possible this initiative to help improve the quality of life for people with disabilities in Egypt and Tunisia.

This story originally appeared in our April 2014 e-Newsletter. If you wish to  stay informed about our programs and events, please join our mailing list.