Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Meet Safia Bari, founder of the Spe­cial Needs Fu­ture De­vel­op­ment Cen­tre.

Friday - - Friday Contents -

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.”


Arts and crafts are a big part of the school, and are sold at lo­cal fairs

Safia with stu­dents at the cen­tre

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