Mak­ing a dif­fer­ence

Emi­rati fash­ion de­signer Lamya Abe­din tells Colin Drury why she de­cided to give part of the prof­its from her new range to a spe­cial needs cen­tre

Friday - - Contents -

Emi­rati fash­ion de­signer Lamya Abe­din on fundrais­ing for a cause close to her heart.

L amya Abe­din still re­mem­bers the looks of sym­pa­thy her preg­nant mother would re­ceive; how in­stead of con­grat­u­lat­ing her, people would say they were sorry.

Some friends would be over­joyed to hear she was ex­pect­ing her sec­ond child. Then shad­ows would cross their face as they learned more. Some talked qui­etly about keep­ing the baby hid­den at home. Worse still, a tiny few whis­pered, con­spir­a­to­ri­ally, about ‘other op­tions’ be­ing avail­able.

The year was 1999 and Lamya’s mother had just been told the baby in her belly – a lit­tle brother for Lamya – would be born with Down’s syn­drome.

“It was hard,” says Lamya. “Ba­bies like this seemed al­most un­heard of back then. Cer­tainly our fam­ily had never known any­one like it. When the doc­tors told us, we ac­tu­ally had to buy books to un­der­stand it all. I’m sure some people felt it was some­how… shame­ful.”

The fam­ily were told Ab­dul­lah would suf­fer from in­tel­lec­tual dis­abil­i­ties and some phys­i­cal dif­fi­cul­ties. He would po­ten­tially need con­stant su­per­vi­sion through­out his life.

“I re­mem­ber I was in my last year at high school at the time,” Lamya says. “Was it dif­fi­cult? Ac­tu­ally, not re­ally. I think the whole fam­ily felt that it didn’t mat­ter, that this was a gift from God, that all life is a pre­cious gift.

“When he was born I re­mem­ber my mother hold­ing him. She kept say­ing ‘How could any­one say any­thing against him? He’s the most beau­ti­ful baby in the world.’ She had to take two years off work be­cause look­ing af­ter him was so in­tense and so ex­haust­ing, but he brought all of us so much joy.”

To­day, Ab­dul­lah is phys­i­cally all but a man. At 14, he shaves daily and, de­spite hav­ing the ap­prox­i­mate men­tal age of a 10-year-old and need­ing a rigid rou­tine in his life to stay bal­anced, he has re­cently com­pleted his sec­ond stint of work ex­pe­ri­ence. His fu­ture is bright.

Lamya, mean­while, youmay al­ready have heard of. She has be­come one of Dubai’s most re­spected fash­ion de­sign­ers. Her­much-loved Queen of Spades la­bel spe­cialises in abayas and bridal wear, and cur­rently sells at eight out­lets in Dubai, Riyadh, Doha and Jo­han­nes­burg.

Now, she is us­ing her grow­ing fame and pop­u­lar­ity to draw at­ten­tion to the needs of chil­dren with Down’s syn­drome across the UAE.

Her lat­est range – a Mex­i­can­themed collection launched late last month at uber-fash­ion­able Ga­leries Lafayette, in The Dubai Mall – will see a per­cent­age of all prof­its do­nated di­rectly to Al Noor Train­ing Cen­tre for Chil­dren with Spe­cial Needs.

“There are many great and wor­thy causes in this city,” says the 35-yearold Emi­rati, who is a mother of three and is mar­ried to a vice-pres­i­dent of Emi­rates Air­line. “But, be­cause of Ab­dul­lah, this is one of the few I feel warm­est to­wards.

“There is a long way to go to ed­u­cate ev­ery­one in Dubai to be ac­cept­ing of chil­dren with Down’s syn­drome, but hope­fully this will raise some aware­ness. That is what I would most like to do.”

And en­cour­ag­ingly, aware­ness about young­sters with spe­cial needs has im­proved vastly in Dubai since Ab­dul­lah was born. “I pas­sion­ately

be­lieve in try­ing to en­sure these chil­dren have the same life chances and op­por­tu­ni­ties as ev­ery­one else.”

Govern­ment ini­tia­tives to help fam­i­lies with such young­sters have been many, gen­er­ous and var­ied, while both the num­ber and size of sup­port groups has in­creased. One of the big­gest, the All 4 Down Syn­drome col­lec­tive, has gone from four fam­i­lies meet­ing in­for­mally at the Amer­i­can Hospi­tal in 2004 to a mas­sive net­work of 100 mem­bers from 25 dif­fer­ent na­tion­al­i­ties 10 years later.

Yet things re­main im­per­fect. Even to­day, notes Lamya – who set up her fash­ion la­bel in 2008 – her fam­ily still gets strange looks when out with Ab­dul­lah. “It up­setsmy mother some­times, and she’ll ask me: ‘what are they star­ing at?’ You hear of chil­dren be­ing called names be­cause they look or they talk dif­fer­ent, which is ter­ri­ble, al­though, for­tu­nately, that’s never hap­pened to us.

“I think it’s just people who don’t un­der­stand or aren’t ed­u­cated about chil­dren like this.”

It is for this very rea­son she is rais­ing aware­ness and funds for Al Noor, a school, train­ing and ther­apy cen­tre in Al Bar­sha that has ar­guably done more for people with spe­cial needs in Dubai than many oth­ers. Founded in 1981 and ini­tially ca­pa­ble of cater­ing for just eight chil­dren, the in­sti­tute has since helped more than an es­ti­mated 1,000 young­sters in­te­grate into so­ci­ety.

To­day, a pur­pose-built base, which was opened in 2007, pro­vides 280 chil­dren with fa­cil­i­ties that would have been unimag­in­able just a gen­er­a­tion ago.

Here, at a sin­gle sprawl­ing sand­coloured site, are 30 class­rooms; ex­ten­sive sports fa­cil­i­ties, in­clud­ing cricket pitches, bas­ket­ball courts, multi-use gym; mu­sic halls; wood­work, de­sign and fash­ion work­shops; a bak­ery and – not some­thing ev­ery school has – an on-site gift shop, fit­tingly called Smiles N Stuff. The place even has its own fleet of trans­port. Six­teen buses travel through the city each morn­ing, pick­ing up pupils. And, very soon, the cen­tre will have a golf course.

Un­der the guid­ance of the 215 staff, the chil­dren, aged be­tween three and 18, are in­di­vid­u­ally as­sessed when they first ar­rive, and then put on a spe­cially tai­lored, goalled pro­gramme de­signed to meet their spe­cific needs. Some progress to aca­demic learn­ing while oth­ers un­der­take vo­ca­tional train­ing. All, the school says, will even­tu­ally be sent out into the world ready to be­come ac­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety.

“The aim is to give these chil­dren the chance of reach­ing their full po­ten­tial, and then en­sur­ing that po­ten­tial is trans­lated so they can be­come in­de­pen­dent and pro­duc­tive mem­bers of the com­mu­nity,” says Isphana Al Khatib, di­rec­tor of Al Noor, who has been in her cur­rent post for 16 years and was a ther­a­pist at the

‘I’m try­ing to en­sure these chil­dren have the same chances and op­por­tu­ni­ties as oth­ers’

school for 12 years be­fore that. “We have come a long way from those days when chil­dren with these needs were so of­ten hid­den away. It’s been a jour­ney in rais­ing first parental and then com­mu­nity aware­ness.

“We must never rest on our lau­rels,” she adds. “But yes, when we see our young people go­ing out and tak­ing their place in the com­mu­nity and hold­ing down jobs in dif­fer­ent com­pa­nies, which we have helped them get, we hope it shows that we are do­ing things well.”

The ev­i­dence sug­gests they are. In the past cou­ple of years alone, for­mer pupils have found per­ma­nent em­ploy­ment as di­verse as a clerk at Dubai Cham­ber Of Com­merce and In­dus­try to a teach­ing as­sis­tant at Delhi Pri­vate School. One has gone on to work at Stan­dard Char­tered Bank. An­other, Chantel Sado, who joined the cen­tre when she was just three, now works in the school’s gift shop, where goods made in the wood­work and de­sign de­part­ments are sold. “I love it,” says the 22-year-old.

It’s not the only place that stocks goods made at Al Noor ei­ther. Such is

the qual­ity of these hand­made items – in­clud­ing bags, badges, T-shirts, mugs, desk­top ac­ces­sories and more – that both Bloom­ing­dale’s in The Dubai Mall and Dubai Duty Free at the city’s air­port sell them.

Del­i­ca­cies made in the bak­ery, mean­while, have to be tasted to be be­lieved. “We tell many of our vis­i­tors,” notes Isphana, “to make sure they are hun­gry when they come.”

Lit­tle Ab­dul­lah never went to Al Noor him­self. The young­ster at­tended Rashid Pae­di­atric Ther­apy Cen­tre, also in Al Bar­sha. The fam­ily had ini­tially wanted him to go to a reg­u­lar school but, ul­ti­mately, felt a specialist fa­cil­ity would be best.

Yet, nonethe­less, when Lamya (or Dada Lamya, as her brother af­fec­tion­ately calls her) vis­ited Isphana at Al Noor this spring, she was so im­pressed by the work be­ing done there – by the sheer scope of its oper­a­tion – she de­cided this was the best place to di­rect her phi­lan­thropy.

In many ways, she says she just feels for­tu­nate to be able to help.

It was al­most by ac­ci­dent that Lamya hit upon the path that has led to her suc­cess as a de­signer. She did a string of jobs af­ter com­plet­ing a busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion de­gree and had spent con­sid­er­able time liv­ing abroad with her hus­band (“Cyprus, Libya, South Africa, Tu­nisia,” she reels off ).

But it was only in 2008, when the self-con­fessed vin­tage ad­dict and cul­ture blen­der couldn’t find an abaya for a spe­cial oc­ca­sion, and in­stead ended up cre­at­ing one her­self, that she had her light bulb mo­ment – she’d set up her own la­bel spe­cial­is­ing in unique, one-off cre­ations.

Since then suc­cess af­ter suc­cess has fol­lowed. Women across the Mid­dle East have fallen for her de­signs and the way they bring con­trast­ing in­flu­ences (Thir­ties Hol­ly­wood, an­cient Ja­pan, Betty Boo) to the tra­di­tional Ara­bic dress. Her web­site is filled with pho­tos of meet­ings with fash­ion-con­scious A-list celebri­ties in­clud­ing Rosemin Manji, Karolina Kurkova and, er, Pele. Why the lat­ter? Lamya did a cus­tomised T-shirt in­spired by the Brazil­ian foot­balling leg­end.

All of which has left our fash­ion­ista in a po­si­tion to make a dif­fer­ence.

“Al Noor re­ally chimed with me,” she ex­plains over the phone dur­ing a break from pre­par­ing for the launch of the new Latino range. “They do such good work.

“Be­fore I be­came a de­signer, I ac­tu­ally worked for an or­gan­i­sa­tion that found job place­ments for

chil­dren with spe­cial needs, and it’s not al­ways easy be­cause each child is so dif­fer­ent. Ab­dul­lah him­self had two work place­ments dur­ing the past two years, one with the Rotana Group and one with Patchi, which was his favourite. His first work was at an of­fice and in­volved fil­ing and pho­to­copy­ing, but he pre­ferred his sec­ond in a fac­tory be­cause the work was repet­i­tive and rou­tine.

“So I think a school that un­der­stands that each child with spe­cial needs is an in­di­vid­ual is do­ing it right.”

And the do­na­tion that comes thanks to Lamya’s lat­est collection will be well re­ceived too. Al Noor, which runs un­der the aus­pices of the Min­istry of So­cial Af­fairs, gets sig­nif­i­cant and much-ap­pre­ci­ated govern­ment help. But to keep do­ing what it does to the stan­dard it reaches, while charg­ing fam­i­lies a bare min­i­mum fee, it needs do­na­tions to keep com­ing in. The do­na­tions will go to­wards im­prov­ing a range of de­part­ments, in­clud­ing phys­io­ther­apy, oc­cu­pa­tional ther­apy, an autism unit and an in­ter­ven­tion cen­tre.

The pro­ceeds from Lamya’s de­signer line – like all do­na­tions – will go to­wards en­sur­ing the chil­dren get the best pos­si­ble ex­pe­ri­ence at the cen­tre.

“We are, of course, ex­tremely grate­ful for all do­na­tions,” says Isphana. “But we are also grate­ful that Lamya is rais­ing aware­ness about what we are do­ing. This is the most im­por­tant thing in this case; that people know if they have a child with spe­cial needs, there is some­where they can go in Dubai that will do its very best for them.”

And Lamya and her fam­ily? They wouldn’t change for a sec­ond the fact that their lives have been so in­ti­mately linked to this sub­ject.

“Ab­dul­lah brings us hap­pi­ness ev­ery day of our lives,” she says. “He’s one of a kind.”

De­signer Lamya wants to raise aware­ness of Down’s syn­drome

There are 215 staff to help and sup­port the chil­dren

The staff aim to send pupils out into the world, ready to be ac­tive mem­bers of so­ci­ety

The del­i­ca­cies baked in the kitchen are mouth-wa­ter­ing

MAK­ING A DIF­FER­ENCE Such is the qual­ity of the items the pupils make, they’re sold in Bloom­ing­dale’s and Dubai Duty Free

Chil­dren get per­son­alised at­ten­tion at the cen­tre

Stu­dents are of­fered vo­ca­tional train­ing at Al Noor

Isphana is happy Lamya is rais­ing aware­ness about Al Noor

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.