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
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