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    Middle East
     Oct 22, 2008
KEBABBLE
Straight as an arrow
By Fazile Zahir

FETHIYE, Turkey - Semray Tas Ozer has defied death, disfiguration and social stigma to become one of Turkey's top disabled archers, despite the fact she had to shoot the bow with her teeth. Now as the proud owner of one of the only four bionic hands in the country she is now taking aim at new, once seemingly distant, targets.

Semray had greatness thrust upon her, surviving an accident in her infancy that would have killed most children. After being sent to school two years late, she quickly caught up and was moved up a grade within the year. She has since been through over 40 major operations, holds down a regular job, and managed to come

 

14th in Turkey last year when competing against able-bodied archers.

I met 25-year-old Semray at her workplace at a local council in Bodrum, where she greeted me with a smile. I put out my right hand to shake and she responded by taking it with her good left hand and not offering her right, which ends in a stump and three partial digits. The moment was slightly awkward but this was soon overcome by her charming manner.

We sat with her husband, Alpaslan and she told me about the day that that changed her life. "I had been left in the care of my five-year-old sister, I was just seven months old, she rocked me to sleep and then put me down near the kitchen fire so that I wouldn't get cold. It was a summer's day but how's a five-year-old supposed to make that sort of judgement? Somehow I rolled into the fire and was terribly burned. My parents took me to hospital in Izmir but they discharged me as beyond treatment. They suggested that my parents take me home to die."

Perhaps some of Ozer's dogged determination is inherited from her parents, who refused to give up on her. They called in the nearest village yanikci, a man who specializes in healing burns using folk medicine. "He slathered me with a cream and some kind of spray and then I fell into a death-like coma. My parents say that they didn't feed me or give me water for a month, that I was like a corpse but not dead. After that I opened my eyes and began to breathe deeply and I had survived."

Semray lost one of her hands in the accident completely and the other was partially damaged, she was left with significant scarring on her face and around her scalp. It was obvious that as she grew up she would always be different from other children.

Even her parents were unable to overcome their own traditional prejudices about disabled children, and despite her achievements she tells me sadly that they still refer to her as being sakat, which means crippled or maimed. They didn't send her to school at seven, thinking that they were protecting her from being teased, unfortunately in many ways they were right.

"The other village children did taunt me, they said I was 'defective' and made me cry. It seems that in one way or another I've spent a large part of my life crying. Now I've got the bionic hand I still cry and can’t sleep at night, but now it's from excitement at what I might achieve with my new hand."

It took the intervention of the village teacher, Mustafa Bey, to get her into school, where despite the hostile attitude of other students she excelled and outshone them all academically. Before long she was in a class with students a year older than her.

Things improved when she went to middle school in Mugla, in Turkey's southwest. Living away from home with other families she grew stronger and more confident in herself, and her new teachers made a great effort to include her in everything at school including sports lessons.

Her excellent record as a student led to her admittance to Mugla's Super Lise High School, where again fate stepped in. The sports teacher was good friends with Muglis Oc, Turkey's premier archery coach to the disabled, and he asked Muglis to come down and see whether Semray could use a bow and arrow. Muglis must have been puzzled when he met her, how could a girl with one hand draw back a bow?

Semray convinced him, "I wanted to prove that I was good at something, that I was special." They came up with a way for her to draw the bow back with her teeth and she developed a technique where she pointed the bow and her head upward (whilst looking down with her eyes) in order to see the target. The results were astonishing. Not only did she have the strength and bravery to literally take the bit between her teeth but she was a deadly shot.

A week later Muglis took her to a special camp in Trabzon for three months training with other disabled archers. At the end of the camp she entered a competition and won first prize. Semray was hooked.

Her competitive life gave her great satisfaction and went some way to addressing the insecurities she still felt about her appearance, but it never completely filled the gap. Despite the fact that her handsome husband could not take his eyes from her face and repeatedly stroked her hair and arm during our interview, she still worries.

"When Alpaslan was first interested in me I couldn't reconcile his attraction with my own mental image of myself. I still want to have plastic surgery to my face to make my skin normal and I like people to take pictures from my good side."

Perhaps this insecurity is understandable in a country where many people recoil from injuries and scars. Her apprehensions can only have been reinforced when insensitive people made comments to her that "if she had been a good person" she would never have had the accident.

There is still a prevailing belief in Turkey that injuries and even death are God's punishment for the misdeeds of the individual, or if they are very young as Semray was, of the family. But Alpaslan has stopped her from having the plastic surgery to her face.

"She’s had over 40 operations in her life, on her hands, her hair, her ears and her face. I just don't think she should be exposed to yet another round of general anaesthetic and pain. She’s already lovely." Semray giggles and looks away shyly as he says this but you can see she’s pleased as punch with her husband's endearments and concern.

When Alpaslan and Semray met she was at a low point, and had given up archery, with her professional career broken up continuously by operations amid fears that at some point a slight mistake and the continual strain caused by her technique would cause her to lose her teeth. Her husband encouraged her to start again and even took archery up himself, both as a competitor and later as a trainer. They now enter couples competitions together.

Even with renewed interest in her sport and her competitive success she knew she was not achieving her full potential. The way she was shooting forced her to tilt her head too far to see targets over 70 meters away. Although she excelled at close-range archery she suffered in open matches and other disabled archers knew they could undermine her psychologically by playing on her long-range weakness.

She had dreamed of a having a prosthetic arm since primary school and when she was 17 Hacettepe University Hospital fitted her with one, "But it didn't move, it was static. I used it for two or three years and then it just got worn out and tatty and I never had another one because effectively it was no more than an ornament."

She dreamed of something that could move, that looked and felt like a hand, something that would let her arrows fly faster and further and browsing on the Internet she found what she wanted. Scottish company Touch Bionics had created and won Britain's top engineering prize for a bionic hand, the i-limb, and were making them commercially available.

The bionic hand has hydraulic drives in each digit that mean all five fingers can move independently allowing Semray not just to draw back a bow but also to use her index finger to release the safety catch. There was only one drawback - the cost. A bionic hand came in at around 100,000 lira (US$66,867) and Semray was a government employee. If she saved all her wages for 10 years she might just be able to get one.

The vagaries of fate swung in her favor this time, and she was contacted by a young reporter, Osman Akca, from the Aegean region newspaper Yeni Asir, "At first Alp and I didn't take him seriously but he kept on phoning us and asking questions about what I might do with a prosthetic hand, how it worked, the mechanisms, details that no one else had ever asked for."

In the past journalists have generally only tended to remember Semray during National Disabled Week and just run a single story, but Osman had something different planned, and at the beginning of April 2008 he started a campaign to raise the funds for the bionic hand, running a piece about her everyday. Yeni Asir raised 71,000 lira, and she got in contact with Touch Bionics who were able to drop the VAT on an exported hand, and suddenly there was enough money.

The hand and a prosthetic support that straps onto her arm came from Britain and arrived in mid-June. Alpaslan helps her attach it so she can show me how it works. It's obvious that she's still not quite at ease with it and both treat the hand with great care.

Semray shows me some of the range of movements, how the thumb is manually operated and I hear a slight whirring noise as the hydraulic joints hiss. Semray wears it for about 20 minutes as we talk and tells me about how at first it seemed very heavy and hard to lift. "It's not the most comfortable thing, especially in the heat as my arm sweats." I ask to feel it and she's right, it is heavy, it weighs maybe around two kilograms.

Inside the arm section Semray shows me two electrodes which "read" the signals from her muscles and then interpret them as hand movements. The longer she uses it the more sensitive it will become to her thoughts as she gets used to operating muscles she has never used before.

It doesn't look entirely natural though, there is something of the Terminator about the hand, Semray laughs and explains, "I don't wear it much at the moment and never at work. I don't want people to look at it and say 'Is that what you wanted so much? What’s all the fuss about?’ When the glove comes [made from a fabric called Living Skin] then it will look the same as my other hand. The glove is being made now to exactly match my skin tone and then in the autumn I can wear long sleeves and it will just be a normal hand. Also Alpaslan has promised to buy me five rings, one for each of my fingers when the glove arrives."

Semray has started training using the prosthesis. It's not easy, she has to learn a whole new technique and way of looking down the shaft of the arrow but her range is better already and Muglis is happy with her progress so far. After disappointingly not being chosen for the Turkish Paralympics team she has now set her sights on qualifying for the World Championships and the next Olympics.

She would be an excellent figurehead for disabled athletes in Turkey, she's bright, driven, charming and photogenic with a great story to tell. If Turkey doesn't recognize her sporting value and her media friendliness, and see its way to funding her so that she can give up the day job and just train, I'm sure that there are other countries with disabled sporting federations who would love to take her.

Fazile Zahir is of Turkish descent, born and brought up in London. She moved to live in Turkey in 2005 and has been writing full time since then.

(Copyright 2008 Fazile Zahir.)


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