Farm fresh: A special needs woman packing cucumbers at the Zayed Agricultural Centre Image Credit: AHMED KUTTY/XPRESS

Dubai: Around 75 men and women with autism and Downs Syndrome are making a living by growing organic vegetables in a 35-hectare farm on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi.

Integrated into mainstream society on an initiative by the Zayed Agricultural Centre for Rehabilitation and Development set up by the Zayed Higher Organisation for Humanitarian Care and Special Needs (ZHO), the special needs people grow an impressive 5,000kg of organic vegetables every week and earn Dh2,500 per month for their sweat and toil.

Their efforts have borne fruit.

Last fortnight, Lulu Hyper-market and ZHO signed a memorandum of understanding under which Lulu will buy their agricultural produce.

A similar deal has been struck with Carrefour and Abu Dhabi Cooperative Society, said George Itty, Co-founder and CEO of Nahtam Social Responsibility in Abu Dhabi, brand development and marketing partner for the farm.

As XPRESS visited the Bani Yas farm, the sense of camaraderie and good cheer that filled the air was unmistakable.

Unmindful of their disabilities, scores of men and women worked feverishly. Some tended the soil while others plucked vegetables, milked goats or packed cheese.

“The entire farm is run by special needs people. They may be suffering from Downs Syndrome or autism, but they have immense potential. We are often surprised by their hidden talents,” said Mohammad Saif Al Areefi, Director, Zayed Agricultural Centre for Rehabilitation and Development.

A typical day starts around 8am with six buses bringing the special needs people to the farm from their homes.

“Each one of them has a specific role. The idea is to give them a meaningful and gainful occupation,” said Al Areefi.

As a delivery van pulled up at the farm’s entrance, two autistic brothers — Salem, 29, and Hamdan, 26, hurried to load crates of freshly plucked vegetables.

“We ensure that the veggies leave our farm by 9am so they are still fresh when they reach the shops. Today, we are sending 700kg of cucumber, 150kg of cherry tomato and 130kg of eggplants to a retail shop in Abu Dhabi,” said Al Areefi.

Salem could hardly conceal his excitement at the prospect of being featured in a newspaper.

“See what we grew, he said, holding up a crate of dark purple glossy eggplants for our lensman.

“We are five siblings and all of us are autistic. Hamdan and I have got jobs and our mother is proud of us. We are happy working here,” he added.

At a milking station nearby, another special needs worker, Fathya, 25, shared the same sentiment. “I joined less than a year back and I am really enjoying it,” she said, slicing a cheese cake.

“We are only centre in the UAE that makes cheese from our own goats. We have nearly 600 goats, generating around 130 litres of milk daily,” said Areefi.

Lately, the farm has become a big draw among people with disabilities. Areefi said people with special needs routinely visit him looking for work. “We are keen to help. But we have a hiring process. We conduct medical check-ups and often consult social workers to determine what kind of job would best suit these people.”

Recently, the Centre added a new packaging section where up to 350 boxes of cherry tomatoes and 160kg of cucumber are packed daily.

Reem Atiq, 30, one of the six women working here, said: “I have become self-reliant. My family is very happy for me.”

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