It was a perfect sunny afternoon early in December when a car crept up to an eight-year-old girl - a Dubai British School pupil - just outside her school in Emirates Hills. The front window slid down as it came up level to the child. A man's smiling face peered out offering to drop her off at her home nearby. Seeing the girl hesitate, a parent who was walking into the school to collect her child sensed something was amiss. She went up to the girl and asked her if there was a problem. The car pulled away quietly, then sped off.
The woman who had intervened escorted the girl inside before notifying the school authorities, who took the incident seriously enough to conduct ‘stranger danger' awareness programmes, and even included them as part of its curriculum. More importantly, the school networked with other schools, to help spread awareness of the potential dangers.
In another incident in March this year, a GEMS Wellington International School pupil was cycling to meet his friends at a park in the Meadows when he was accosted by a man on a bike. He had no doubt in his mind how to react, as his parents had taught him to be wary of strangers. "Come to my house, we'll have fun," the man reportedly said. The boy quickly cycled off and the man gave chase for a while, before giving up. The incident was reported to the police and to the security at the Meadows.
If you think these incidents happen only in quiet communities, think again. A recent post on a blogging website tells another story. "My small daughter was just a few metres in front of me outside [a] supermarket on Al Wasl Road, Dubai, when it happened," the mother wrote. Her daughter, she goes on to say, survived a kidnapping attempt in March. "Two men flanked her and forcefully and purposefully swept her towards the exit. It was in a split second... and I screamed when I saw it!"
What surprised the mother was the suddenness of the attack. "It was swift, slick and without communication," she noted.
The mother notified the principal at her child's school, Jumeirah English Speaking School (JESS), according to a Gulf News report, and a circular was sent to parents calling for increased vigilance.
Statistics might say that child abductions by strangers are rather rare. Even in populous countries like the US, where the crime rates are much higher than in the UAE, less than 2 per cent of all missing-children cases are categorised as ‘kidnapping by a stranger'. But, as Wael Al Sayegh - an Emirati writer and poet, and director of the Family Martial Arts UAE Leadership Academy - points out, "as recent press reports have shown, teaching your children about ‘stranger danger', and being aware of the risk - however small - is something all parents and schools should be taking more seriously."
He adds, "We all know Dubai is a very safe place, I can't stress that enough, but ultimately our safety and self-protection is our own responsibility."
Wael, as a concerned parent of a three-year-old son, Salem, who's just started school, has designed a ‘Stranger danger' education package for primary school children. He's been demonstrating it in schools in Dubai since April. "We have a great policing system, but we should never be lured into thinking our safety is somebody else's responsibility."
Wael is adamant that parents and children alike should be educated about the dangers of strangers. "You can be lulled into a false sense of security, simply because Dubai is a safe place to live. But untoward incidents can happen anywhere."
Wael believes that schools and parents both need to reinforce the stranger danger message and teach children the right way to react so that they know to exercise caution when approached by an unknown adult.
"I designed the free seminar for schools on awareness of strangers and avoiding abduction as a response to some of the recent scares," he says. "We believe that every child from the age of three until 12 should be trained in dealing with approaching strangers."
The programme in action
Naturally Wael chose the school his son attends, De La Salle Montessori International Nursery & Creche, for the first seminar, held in April. About 30 children aged between three and four gathered with their parents in the morning after the school assembly. Wael and his wife, Shamilla Jakoet, wearing their martial arts uniforms, spoke to them first about what constitutes a stranger.
Some parents were sceptical about whether such young children could be taught self-protection. But Wael counters, "I believe we all have a responsibility to teach our children to act cautiously around strangers right from this age." And at the end of this first demonstration, the children's participation and reaction prove him right.
"The Stranger Danger programme is split into different phases," says Wael. "First, we explain to children what a stranger is, that not all strangers are bad, some are nice, but if you are not with your family, you shouldn't be speaking to strangers. Then we go into some of the things a stranger might say or do to lure a child away."
The trusting three to four-year-old children gathered that day looked at Wael intently as he moved around the indoor assembly area of his son's nursery. "When a stranger approaches you, what do you do?" he asks, and then his normal baritone rises to a high-pitched shout, "You say, ‘No! No! No! Stranger! Stranger!'" The idea, he says, is to draw attention to the potential abductor. "The stranger doesn't want attention drawn to them, so when you do, he or she is most likely to get scared and go away.
"Most parents warn their kids not to talk to strangers," he says. "Unfortunately, that may not be enough as many children have a hard time identifying who really is a stranger. Just because a person looks ‘safe' or ‘normal', it doesn't mean that he/she isn't someone who could harm them. Children need to remember that the person is a stranger because they don't know them, not because they may look dangerous or ‘different'."
The best self-defence technique is to keep a distance. "If a stranger gets too close and is speaking to you, remember he's using dialogue to get close to you," Wael tells the children. "Once he's close enough to grab you it becomes almost impossible to do anything. Always maintain distance from the stranger. And run, run, run!" he tells his audience.
The words may seem complicated for children to understand, but it's obvious that they grasp the meaning. When Wael gets them involved in a demonstration, they unerringly practise the right moves.
"Remember, when a stranger approaches you, and you feel uneasy, get as far away from them as possible," he says. "If that doesn't stop them, yell," he says, repeating the line, ‘‘No! No! No! Stranger! Stranger!''. The children enthusiastically join in. "If the stranger is still trying to talk to you, or getting close, scream ‘Go away, I don't know you!'" Wael tells them. The children faithfully mimic him. A couple of tries later, the children are actually pushing the adult who's trying to restrain them and running like mad when Wael shouts "Run, run, run!"
The parents practise with the children, and it's apparent the real danger that could rear its head at any time is slowly sinking in.
"I am so glad I came," says a young mother who is participating in the seminar with her daughter.
Eagle claws and monster teeth
"The next part is what do you do if you cannot push the stranger away as he/she is too close to you?" Wael asks his audience. Finding the group silent he offers them another piece of advice. "Use a different grip movement to grab attention. It is a form of pre-emptive strike. A stranger doesn't want attention drawn to him, so we'll give him attention."
He demonstrates the move flexing his fingers mimicking a bird's claws and asking the children: "Can you make these eagle claws?" The kids enthusiastically join in the game. He then bares his teeth in a vicious grin: "Can you do these monster teeth?" The kids shriek in delight as they bare their tiny teeth. "In case a child is picked up by a stranger teach the kid to do eagle claws and monster teeth," says Wael.
"Eye gouges and biting the abductor wherever possible is another way of attracting attention when the child is in his grip," he tells the parents.
"If that doesn't work, and the kid is being dragged into a car what they need to do to draw attention is to clap their hands, push to keep from getting into the car, scream or make noise, attack the abductor... the idea is to make it as difficult as possible for a kidnapper."
Customised for the UAE
The techniques he's demonstrating are developed by the Family Martial Arts Academy in the UK. In fact, Wael has adapted three Family Martial Arts Academy's programmes - Stranger Danger, Anti-bullying and the Ladies Safe - for the UAE. All of them are free.
Peter Moore, head of the primary section, Dubai British School, believes stranger danger awareness programmes should be taught at all schools, as they are at his. "We have had a series of assemblies outlining all the points of which they need to be aware," says Peter. "Again these occasions give us an opportunity to ensure that the children have listened and understood."
This is followed by reinforcement in classrooms by teachers, followed by question-and-answer sessions. "A regular cycle of events is on the timetable for next year so that we know these issues will be addressed and reinforced regularly in all students," says Peter, who's considering inviting Wael to conduct his workshop at his school.
Wael's ‘Stranger danger' programme has struck a chord in other schools in Dubai. He's held demonstrations at the Rashid School for Boys, American School of Dubai, Jebel Ali Primary School and Star International School, among others, educating a total of 2,000 children. "We invited [Wael] who is a former student, to conduct workshops with all classes in the primary school over a two-day period in late April," says Glyn Lewis, Head of Primary, Rashid School for Boys.
"The workshops were a great success. The concept of ‘distance' being the best defence and his definition of what a ‘stranger' is, make this a most useful short course for children from four to 11 years of age."
Wael says, "The older the children are, the more real I can get with the situation.
"The important thing to remember is many of these situations can be avoided by just running away.
"We'll be reaching out to a lot more students. I am contacting all the schools, and for any school that wants me to come in, I will do it free of charge."
A mother approaches Wael after the demonstration at De La Salle nursery. "It's been an eye-opener!' she says. "I've never thought about actively doing something to protect my son even though it's been at the back of my mind. Now I know what to do."
I suggest Wael's mission has been accomplished. "Actually, it has just begun,"he says.
Wael's tips for children…
- Don't talk to strangers when a parent is not around.
- Don't accept lifts, sweets, gifts or money from a stranger.
- If you get lost in a mall go to a security guard or shop assistant and ask them for help.
- Don't give your name, address, phone number or any other information about yourself to strangers.
- Be careful if strangers call out to you to come closer for help or directions. Remember, it's easier for a stranger to pull you into a car if you get close enough.
- Don't be fooled by people who pretend to know you or your parents.
- If you are ever in doubt or don't feel uncomfortable in a situation then go somewhere that is safe and tell an adult.
…and for parents
- Create a secret family password to be used in case of emergencies. If you have to send a friend to collect your children from school they can use the password to reassure your child they have really been sent by mummy or daddy.
- Make sure your home helpers are fully briefed on the proper precautions and procedures.