Abdullah al Ruqaishi sits quietly in his recently opened gift shop that sells handcrafted items made by him as his mother and sister talk about immediate plans for the new venture. He is quiet but mindful of every word uttered. When his mother Halima al Toubi talks about his many interests and activities, including horse riding, sailing, skating, swimming… Abdullah prompts her. “Barca…” which begs the next question. His favourite player? “Messi,” he declares emphatically.
Abdullah has Down’s syndrome and has been a student of a centre for children with special needs run at an Indian school since he was four. Now 17, he has less than a year before he’ll be out of the centre. Then, he’ll have nowhere to go other than be at home. “It’s common to see children who are like Abdullah just sitting and staring into empty space all day. You’ll see these children being sat outside their house doing nothing all day,” Halima says.
That inevitable scenario playing out scared Halima into action. “There are schools and associations that younger children with special needs can attend. But once they turn 18, there is no more support,” Halima explains. Left to themselves, and left idle, such children develop undesirable behaviour, like talking to themselves, among others. Then there are the health issues typical of such children. And at the back of her mind was a nagging question gnawing away. What after her? Who’ll take care of Abdullah?
The answer to those questions had been in the works for many years now. In efforts to integrate Abdullah into the mainstream and give him a life as normal as possible, Halima enrolled him in a wide array of sports activities, including sailing. He recently represented Oman in the Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi 2019. But two years ago, in efforts to give him more skills for a better chance at life, Halima enrolled him in a vocational training programme. That’s when the ball was unknowingly set rolling.
Conducted by Gayatri Narasimhan, a psychologist and social worker, he learnt how to make candles, chocolates, greeting cards, soaps, block printing and screen printing in the programme. Encouraged by his aptitude to learn new skills, he was also given training in making flower bouquets by a professional stylist and is currently learning photography.
Faced with the unsettling thought of Abdullah’s future before the situation came to a head, it dawned on them to use the skills he had picked up and the activities he enjoyed to be gainfully engaged leading to the gift shop. The brightly done up shop – Green Ivy - with shelves lined with Abdullah’s handmade creations is Oman’s milestone in efforts to integrate individuals with special needs into society. Its location, bang opposite the Seeb Vocational Training College in Al Hail, is mere coincidence but couldn’t be lost on anyone.
Besides keeping Abdullah meaningfully occupied and preventing unwanted behaviour, the craft activities have other benefits. “Making greeting cards improves motor skills and candle making helps focus, while block printing boosts hand-eye coordination,” Gayatri explains. “You can’t say these children have no capabilities. All they need is equal opportunities to make use of their potential.” She describes Abdullah as a perfectionist when it comes to making chocolate bouquets.
Abdullah has been attending Gayatri’s vocational training programme conducted in Ruwi for two years now, but the opening of Green Ivy in Al Hail now calls for a workshop near the shop, preferably in the same building. “The complete infrastructure for the shop – for it to be sustainable – has to be set up and that requires more funds,” Halima says. She used up her retirement funds received at the end of 31 years of service in Petroleum Development Oman in the shop and is still repaying a loan taken for it.
Halima’s efforts to secure Abdullah’s future have earned her the title of ‘mother of the year’ conferred by Tariq al Khabori, founder of Oman Disabled Diver’s Association and liaison manager of International Association of Handicapped Divers. Tariq, who played a significant role in setting up the gift shop, says it’s important for society to support such efforts to integrate individuals with special needs into the mainstream. “Without the support of the community, it’s impossible to achieve integration. There are many others like him who have potential. These efforts should not stop with Abdullah,” Tariq urges.