| Dubai, United Arab Emirates

Hotseat: Safia Bari

When Safia Bari discovered her daughter had special needs, her world fell apart. But today she runs the UAE’s biggest support network for parents and their special needs children

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‘My daughter is a blessing. She’s the central point of our family and when she’s away, for whatever reason, we find ourselves wondering what to do with our time,’ says Safia Bari proudly of Nusrat, aged 26. But this philanthropic mum of three, who runs the non-profit SNF (Special Needs Families) group and Children Development Centre, hasn’t always dealt with her situation so positively.

It took Safia a long time to come to terms with her daughter’s problems. ‘I didn’t really accept the fact that Nusrat was different until she was almost eight,’ she admits. ‘I knew nothing about special needs, so when she was slow compared to her peers, I told myself it was because she was my first baby and she’d been pampered too much – even though I was a trained teacher. I was trying to convince myself, I suppose.’

After the acceptance came a dark period, when Safia blamed herself and searched frantically for answers. ‘I would wake up in the middle of the night worrying about Nusrat’s future and asking myself what I’d done wrong,’ she recalls. ‘It was difficult – and when I look back, I remember closing myself off from other parents because I was so down. Nusrat was nine by then and a pupil at the Al Noor Centre for Special Needs.’
A chance encounter with ano-ther parent, Safia says, shook her out of her malaise and changed the way she thought forever.

‘One day I went to Nusrat’s school sports day and I met a woman who had twins with extreme special needs. She was smiling and happy – thankful even. I was amazed at her strength and then ashamed of myself. I realised the saying “I wept because I had no shoes until I met a man who had no feet”, had never been so true.’

In that defining moment, Safia changed. She became actively involved in Al Noor’s volunteer programme, held weekend open house days for other parents and their special needs kids, and set up a summer camp from her living room for children who had nowhere to go in Dubai’s long summer months.

Then, in 2003, she established the SNF support group. From just two families, today more than 150 families are members of the group, which has a database of medical specialists who offer their services pro bono, a fundraising division, a volunteer programme and a very full social calendar.

The SNF Children Development Centre in Karama was the next step. It opened in 2006 and provides a safe haven for 23 students, whose parents have been unable to get their children a place in one of Dubai’s special needs schools.

‘We have a waiting list here too,’ says Safia, of her own small centre, which is open from 8am until 12.30pm five days a week. ‘We don’t have much space, and we want to offer each student a nurturing environment, so we don’t overload ourselves.’

The students, aged 12 and up, learn a variety of life skills aimed at teaching independence. Some have never received any formal education, so it’s a challenge, but one Safia happily rises to, teaching them everything from basic IT, to embroidery to yoga.

Looking back, did she ever expect to be doing what she’s doing? Safia hoots with laughter. ‘Oh no! Not at all! I wouldn’t have thought myself capable. But I love it, I really do. These children bring you so much joy.’
Contact Special Needs Families on 04 334 9818; www.snfgroup.com; snfgroup@gmail.com.

Time Out Dubai,

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