Making a difference
Meet Safia Bari, founder of the Special Needs Future Development Centre.
Suhana pulls the blanket neatly over the bed and plumps up the pillow before standing back to admire her work. Wandering into the kitchen next door, she turns the kettle on, reaches into a cupboard for the tea bags and washes a mug as the water boils. Morning tea in hand, the 21-year-old returns to the bedroom, turns on the iron and chooses her outfit for the day.
These are not big feats for most but for this young woman who suffers from learning difficulties, they are huge achievements. What makes them even more noteworthy is the fact that Suhana couldn’t speak when she first enrolled at the Special Needs Future Development Centre (SNF) in Dubai five years ago.
But today, thanks to the assistance of professional speech therapists at the centre, Indian-born Suhana has made remarkable progress, not only communicating in full sentences but learning to be independent in her day-to-day activities.
The SNF in Karama helps 40 students like Suhana every day. With a host of professionals on hand, from occupational therapists to art teachers, young adults with learning disabilities who previously had nowhere to go after graduating from special needs schools, today have somewhere to belong.
Founded in 2007 by 54-year-old Indian expat Safia, the SNF centre’s aim is to help these post-schoolage individuals enter society as independent and motivated adults, giving them the chance to excel within various vocational skills, from office administration to flower arranging, arts and crafts to teaching.
It’s a testament to the care of Safia whose daughter, Nusran, 30, suffers from cerebral palsy.
“Although this centre was started in 2007,” says Safia from her office above the Karama Centre, “it actually was in operation in 2003 when I began to run activities for young adults with learning disabilities. I realised they had nowhere to go after they graduated from other centres. When they reached 16 it seemed they had no place, no programmes, and no activities.”
The lack of services was highlighted after Safia attended sports days at the Al Noor Special Needs Centre, and discussed the issue with other parents. “We realised the kids were depressed because they were sitting at home, doing nothing. After meeting other parents I felt there was a need to offer more, and that was particularly the case when it came to summer holidays because their siblings would go off for summer camps but these children would be left at home.”
Taking it upon herself to bring about change after discussing the shortage with other parents, Safia decided to start small – offering activities in her own home to special needs children in the community.
“I tried to keep the kids busy with arts and craft, music and painting. It wasn’t enough though, especially for working parents because there are few or no babysitting facilities for special needs children.”
Realising far more needed to be done for these children in the UAE, Safia approached schools to try to start up a summer camp to offer young adults a space in which they could develop while enjoying constructive and fun activities. “In
‘It’s important to have a family day out – some of their siblings would learn how to cope better’
2005 a school offered us five classrooms to run a fully functioning summer school,” she says. “It was popular immediately and we had 70-80 children enrolled. It was free and we’d take the kids on outings to the movies, water parks, the beach... Many places, like WildWadi, would also offer us free admission.”
But it wasn’t just the outings that brought about hope and a sense of normalcy for all these young adults – it was the fact that Safia’s summer school often organised events the whole family could attend.
“It wasn’t just the children we invited but their families too,” she explains. “Because it’s important to have a real family day out. Also, some of the siblings would learn how to cope with having a brother or sister with special needs because at times they find it difficult to accept their sibling. When they saw other families and how they interacted with each other and accepted each other it helped to change their perspective.”
The outings were made possible not only by the generosity of venues that opened their doors free to the students, but also to the volunteers from the community who gave up their time to help supervise the excursions. Safia hoped that by exposing the young adults to people from all walks of life, they could learn and benefit from mainstream situations. “People of all ages would come from various organisations, schools, colleges and companies because they wanted to volunteer to spend time with the kids,” she remembers. “It allowed our young adults to spend time with different people and they could learn so much from that interaction.”
It was around this time that Safia decided they needed to offer the kids in their care a more permanent solution, a place they could attend on a daily basis where they could provide holistic support to the young adults through personalised and professional care. She set about trying to find the correct location but was stunned by some responses.
“It really hurt when some property managers told us that our students would be allowed to come in only through the back door and use the service lifts,” she says.
However, in 2007 the Karama Centre willingly rented out a twobedroom flat above the shopping
‘We opened with four kids and two teachers – now we have nearly 20 staff and 40 students’
arcade and with the assistance of some generous donors, Safia opened the SNF.
“We opened the centre with four kids and two teachers,” she says. “Today we have 20 members of staff and nearly 40 students. But the journey has not been easy; it was challenging to get the place, to pay the rent, salaries, and many of the students who come here are not rich, they can’t really afford the fees and in the past seven years we haven’t raised the fees very much.”
In 2007 Safia charged a mere Dh800 per month for the SNF centre services, which saw children given four hours of quality, personalised care, five days a week. Today that’s risen to just Dh1,250 so she can keep the organisation running. “Only 50 to 60 per cent of the students actually pay the fees,” she says. “The rest of them are either sponsored or are not paying at all; they are just paying for the transport, which is only Dh300.”
And as much as Safia would love for her organisation to run purely on love, she is the first to admit that it is not easy to maintain the establishment. Spread out over three two-bedroom apartments, the multi-purpose hub offers 14 brightly coloured classrooms, a gym, a dance studio, and equipped living areas in which to teach the students basic lifestyle skills. “We have used every inch and every corner, as you can see,” she laughs.
Wandering through the premises, it is obvious to see that the students are all engaged, attentive and motivated while being cared for and attended to by a staff of 20 salaried trainers consisting of speech and occupational therapists as well as physiotherapists and specialised vocational teachers.
“We try to concentrate on vocational skills,” Safia says. “We try to train them for back office jobs with simple tasks like filing, binding and sorting so they can find work in administrative roles.
“We also send them for job experience, such as at Jenny Flowers, and we have connected with a hotel so they can start housekeeping, and we’ve joined up with a law firm which will employ them to set up conference rooms.”
So far, these programmes have had some success with three students moving into full-time employment as an art assistant in a school, a receptionist and one has become a full-time teacher at the SNF centre.
For those who are a little less independent, the centre recently started opening on Saturdays so some of the students – as well as professionals with little time during the week – can now volunteer their time on the weekends.
“Some of our students felt a little low that they couldn’t earn money like their siblings,” explains Safia. “So we decided to conduct workshops on Saturdays so that they could work alongside volunteer professionals. They make handicraft products and we then pay them for their working days at the end of the month.”
The products are intricately and beautifully handcrafted, ranging
from jewellery and cards, to mugs and paintings, with a strong focus on recycling. In the past, the students have produced excellent work in glass painting, ceramic painting, needle and bead work, and paper craft. The works are sold at art fairs and the proceeds go towards the centre.
“We take part in a lot of bazaars and craft fairs,” Safia explains. “Arté is one of them, it is held every first Friday of the month next to Ikea in Festival City. Every second Friday we have a stand in Times Square. We also take orders from companies; for example we’ve just received an order for 800 handmade cards, and another for 600.”
While some SNF students make it into the workplace, and some work Saturdays for a salary, all the SNF students learn how to become self-sufficient and learn how to carry out the everyday tasks in life that most take for granted.
“Our tag line is, Growing Up Confident, and that’s exactly what we are trying to instil in them,” explains Safia. “We try to make them independent, so we teach life skills that will allow them to make sandwiches, use a microwave, cross the road, shop, and deal with money.”
She adds, “We take them for practical sessions so they are taught how to go to the market, buy vegetables and then make a salad, so that in the absence of their parents they can make a snack, a cup of tea and be a little more independent.”
To this end, the centre even has fully fitted and functioning kitchens and living areas with all the necessary appliances so the students can learn how to carry out tasks such as ironing and making beds, alongside other vocational programmes on their timetables.
“Our main issue is that we are running out of space,” Safia says. “We need space to take on more students, to make products, and to store them. We are looking to move into larger premises – a villa would be ideal as we could close the gates and it would be a safe and secure environment.”
For now the centre does not have enough money to expand and although it has been pledged support from well-wishers, it isn’t enough to secure a piece of land.
“We held a gala dinner last month to try to raise funds for this move but despite all the generous donations, after the outgoings, we didn’t raise enough,” Safia says.
“I am so grateful that we have grown to this size and we are really able to make a difference in the lives of these students. I never expected it to grow to this size but we need as much help as we can get to continue offering these young adults a bright and independent future.”
MAKING A DIFFERENCE
Arts and crafts are a big part of the school, and are sold at local fairs
Safia with students at the centre