Accessible community initiatives, developed by ordinary people for the people, seem to be mushrooming in Abu Dhabi.
From initiatives that try to place healthy lifestyle choices within everyone’s reach to those that work on the inclusion of children with disabilities, residents and citizens in the capital are taking matters into their own hands to address what they have identified as crucial issues in society.
Without a business agenda in sight, these initiatives were inspired by personal experiences.
“#theADmovement is a community platform by women for women to get fit and flourish,” said Abeer Amiri.
The concept was started to fill a gap felt by Amiri and the co-founders — Sarah Al Nowais, an Emirati health coach student and founder of blog FitnutUAE, and Kristin Anderson, an American nutrition enthusiast and metabolic fat-loss coach.
According to the 27-year-old Emirati cross-fit trainer, who also holds a full-time government position in Abu Dhabi, she and her two “fitnut” friends struggled to find health and fitness events that were relevant to them.
According to Amiri, most of what they found was experts providing advice without considering everyday women and their responsibilities towards their work and home life.
“We believe that there is no one single way to be fit and healthy, and that in order for it to be sustainable, you need to find something that you truly love. With that in mind, each event we have held has a different theme so women can experience that the various ways of leading healthy lifestyles.
"Because food and fitness is on everyone’s radar, we show them that healthy food is delicious and fitness can be fun. Our events are usually a combination of fitness activities, healthy food, along with talks/workshops,” said Amiri.
Farah Al Qassieh is a 27-year-old Emirati who has stuttered for as long as she can remember, which she said gave classmates and teachers a reason to bully her growing up and in turn affected her confidence.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to do something.” In 2013 she started speaking to another person who stuttered for the first time, who was not family, and realised just how much there was to be gained from the experience.
“I realised by just talking about it... that it helped, and I wanted to share that feeling with the wider community,” Al Qassieh said.
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Hamda Al Hadrami and her daughter Ruwaida
Shortly after the exchange, she set up Stutter UAE to help others who stuttered.
“Stutter UAE is a social initiative that aims at creating a platform for people who stutter to meet, interact and inspire one another by learning from each other’s experiences. And to raise awareness in the community about the challenges that people who stutter face,” Al Qassieh explained.
“I am passionate about this. That’s where I find myself, share my experiences, help others and others help me look at myself in a different perspective,” said Al Qassieh.
When American expatriate Khawla Barley — and founder of Goals UAE — realised there were no activities or programmes for her son with autism, Abdullah, she decided to do something about it.
“I wanted Abdullah to be able to do things, go out and take art classes or go to gym. But he is not able to follow along independently. There were a few activities that worked only through the centres, but there was nothing else available,” said Barley.
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Khawla Barley with her son Abdullah and daughter Safia
“The majority of kids, where do they find their passion? Sometimes it’s in school, in gym or art class. You find out by trying different things. It’s also where kids develop their social skills. It’s a different dynamic to school. You are interacting, you are working mostly in a team.
"You are talking to (other) kids. It’s a great way for kids to find what is going to make them a well-rounded person,” Barley explained. In November 2014, Barley organised a pilot football event for children with autism.
The turnout and parents’ feedback confirmed to her that there was a desperate need for extracurricular activities for children with autism in the capital. She launched Goals UAE and started to facilitate activities for children with autism mostly in sports and arts.
For Hamda Al Hadrami, it was her postpartum depression, after the birth of her child three years ago, and not having anyone to speak with and feeling alone, that led her to establish the Mama Bear Club.
“I had so many questions in my head and was confused about a lot of things. How to handle a new born? Questions on breastfeeding. I found it difficult to connect with other mothers who were going through the same thing. I felt alone. That’s where it started. I started reaching out to other mothers who had given birth recently or three to four months before me,” Al Hadrami said.
“It was life changing, because when you feel like they are going through the same things as you are, they have the same questions as you do, it made me relaxed knowing that I am not alone.
"And knowing that I could depend on these women to ask them questions, and feel like it was normal to be going through whatever I was going through. It took me out of postpartum depression, made me see the light,” she said. The 29-year-old from Abu Dhabi said she initially gathered women in a WhatsApp group, where they exchanged experiences. She also started to research what was available in the community for mothers, at all stages of motherhood.
“It was almost like there was a gap in Abu Dhabi... to get mothers together to talk to each other about everything mother related,” said Al Hadrami.
Making it accessible
These initiatives have other points in common, they try and keep their events and activities at low cost or even free, so that they are accessible by anyone in the community. And they are using social media as their primary point of communication to spread their message and inform people about their upcoming activates.
“We host a mix of events that are both free, or have a minimum charge, and open the events up to all ladies who want to improve their lives and have some fun along the way,” said Amiri.
#theADmovement organises large quarterly events, which on average have 250 people in attendance, as well as setting up more frequent but smaller and intimate activities, such as runs for women.
“Every event that we have had, none of the attendees have had to pay anything. Because I really want to help people who stutter, cost is secondary,” said Al Qassieh.
Al Qassieh said if there are any costs she pays for it out of her own pocket to make sure anyone who stutters can be included, regardless of their background.
Al Qassieh said she tries to organise one monthly get-together with group members, which usually sees about 15 people attending and two yearly larger events that generally have over a 100 people in attendance. She also tries to raise awareness about stuttering by holding talks at schools and universities.
“My commitment has been, I won’t start a programme unless I know it can be done at an accessible price. We want to keep things reasonable and accessible for parents. Even parents with resources, it is incredibly taxing (for families affected by autism), the therapies, the school, the shadow teachers, it’s not paid for (by any organisation). There are families that can’t afford therapies so they certainly can’t afford after school,” said Barley.
Likewise, Al Hadrami said she tries to keep her initiative’s events free however, she said where suppliers charge her, she charges a small fee to recover the cost.
Individuals taking action
These women spend countless hours of their own time, despite the fact that majority of them have demanding full time jobs and families to look after, as well as using their own resources to ensure others in the community can benefit from their initiatives and to make their city more pleasant and inclusive for all. Why do they think it is important for individuals to take action when they can?
“When individuals in our community take initiative and start something grassroots, we are able to have a direct positive impact on our community,” said Amiri.
“Government can do so much. It is our duty as much as it is the government’s to make that change. If someone sees something that can be addressed, if they can, they should take it upon themselves to make a change. It really takes one person to make that change,” said Al Qassieh.
“We as community members cannot and should not wait for the government to provide for us what we can create ourselves. I believe everyone has a responsibility to contribute to the betterment of their community and country to whatever extent they can,” said Barley.
“I think it’s very worthy cause to give back without expecting anything in return. Not a lot of people want to give their time and effort to the community. So the ones that do that, I respect them very much. You are doing it, sometimes you are spending your own money, your own time, your own resources to get things done and to get the message out there. It’s a noble cause,” said Al Hadrami.
When #theADMovement held its first event in a spa in Abu Dhabi in 2016, 150 women attended. From this point on, its three founders began working on ideas and events that brought women together and introduced them to the local health and fitness options that were available to them in the city, in a fun environment.
“Our launch event last year was on the Journey of Wellness which included a wellness talk, boot camp, yoga, meditation, and active-wear shopping and good food. We then collaborated with Yas Marina Circuit and FBMA to host a Ramadan event which included cycling, hot yoga, dance, a cooking demonstration, and group painting.”
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“#theADmovement is a community platform by women for women to get fit and flourish,” says Abeer Amiri; guests at an event organised by #theADmovement
Amiri said they focused on ensuring their events were child friendly, to attract all women, and even organised a Mother and Child Fun Fair at the capital’s Zayed Sports City.
With over a year of experience in the field, Amiri said they are already incorporating the lessons that they have learnt in their upcoming activities, such as the launch of their programme, Fit and Flourish.
“We started off last year with all our events being quite large scale, but have realised that large-scale isn’t always better. This was one of the reasons we launched Fit and Flourish.
"This is a string of smaller events introducing ladies to various fun fitness sessions at different facilities around town, followed by an intimate expert-led discussion over a nutritious meal. We wanted to create an intimate environment where we can meet and interact with other women, and they can really meet each other and meet their trainers to create a sense of comfort at a facility that is newly introduced to them.”
The co-founder said she hopes their events can reach more women in Abu Dhabi in future. “Really what we want to do is roll out this movement so that women feel confident and comfortable to try out different things that would help them lead healthy lifestyles, and really fall in love with it the way we have.”
Farah Al Qassieh, founder of Stutter UAE initiative, tries to organise monthly meetings and activities for people who stutter, so that they can be more open about their condition and ways to overcome it.
“People who stutter, tend to shy away from the fact that they stutter. They tend to hide it. For example if I want coffee but I know I get stuck at C, I would change to tea. So instead of saying ‘I want a cup of coffee’, I would say ‘can I have a cup of co (she pauses) ... tea.’ You might not notice that I made that change but I notice it. And it has a negative psychological effect (for the person who stutters),” explained Al Qassieh.
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Farah Al Qassieh, founder of Stutter UAE
“They (attendees at Stutter UAE) get to be upfront about this with someone who gets it, who also stutters. Who knows that you really wanted a coffee but because you stutter you got tea. But that’s OK, it’s not a big deal. That’s how it helps, knowing that there are other people out there who know exactly how it feels. They are not just saying ‘I can imagine how’.”
She also provides support with the help of a speech therapist who volunteers her time to the initiative. To raise more awareness about stuttering, which Al Qassieh said is still a stigma in this region, her initiative organised the region’s first Stuttering Awareness Day event in 2015, which has now become an annual event.
“It hurts to know it is still a stigma but change takes time,” she said.
To help people understand better how it feels to stutter, she has come up with an analogy. She compares stuttering to arriving at a mall to try and catch a movie but struggling to reverse park the car smoothly in a busy car park, which may lead to several failed attempts, other cars queuing up and people getting frustrated, including yourself, at the situation.
“Then you take a big breath, you refocus and you try again, that’s when the car goes into the parking... That’s how what stuttering feels like, the emotion, the frustration, the anxiety.
"I know that I can park the car. I know what I want to say, I just need a bit more time to get the words out. It’s that feeling again and again and again. Every time you want something, or think you want to approach someone for something,” she explained.
Al Qassieh hopes that in future she can open a centre for people who stutter so they can receive any support that they need and “be themselves, get training, meet other people who stutter.”
Khawla Barley’s Goals UAE has seen over 500 children with autism attend her initiative’s extracurricular activities in Abu Dhabi. She said she acts more as a facilitator for those who are interested to help but are not sure exactly what they can do.
“People really want to get involved, they want to help but they don’t know how. They are intimidated, maybe they know someone with autism and they have seen some of the behavioural issues and they think those behaviours can’t be managed. They don’t know what to do,” said Barley.
“I don’t run anything per se, I just facilitate with programmes that are running and are existing.”
One such programme is the initiative’s basketball programme which is held in partnership with the New York University in Abu Dhabi (NYU Abu Dhabi). NYU Abu Dhabi provides their basketball facilities, including coaches and volunteers, to bring basketball training to children with autism. The initiative trains those involved in the programmes with what Barley calls “an introduction to autism”, which highlights some of the behavioural challenges that they may face and how to deal with situations.
Goals UAE’s sports programmes run with a minimum of one volunteer, ‘buddy’, per child.
“Kids with autism have trouble mirroring. A child with autism would do better if I am sitting next to them. That’s where the buddy comes in. They can go over an instruction again with a child if need be. A child that can follow, the buddy might repeat again, maybe demonstrate it again side by side. To give them more encouragement to break down the steps for them.”
Barley said the initiative’s volunteer system allows for children with autism of all abilities to attend the programme, their only criteria is age, “and that’s because we can’t bring a three or four year old to a basketball game to play with those who are fully grown. But ability, we never exclude.”
According to Barley, the programme has also been instrumental in helping children with autism overcome their phobia of sports such as football and basketball, which had generally developed from their lack of ability to follow instructions in a group setting.
Barley hopes that in future she can develop a music programme, which has so far not been possible due to prohibitive costs, as music is another area that some children with autism are known to excel in.
Mama Bear Club
Hamda Al Hadrami has been organising events that support mothers with everything mother related since 2016.
“When I say mother related and what Mama Bear is all about, it’s mothers at different stages of their motherhood journey. It could be they are expecting a child, or they just have a newborn, or they are more experienced with multiple children who are a bit older, or it could be someone who is just thinking about becoming a mother to explore it,” said Al Hadrami.
“Lets say, you are expecting, which hospital to go to? Which doctor? Which procedure? Which medication? What’s your birth story? It could be that you just had a baby and you are asking questions about breastfeeding. About baby sleeping, co-sleeping, about how to balance your newborn with your husband. All of that.”
Al Hadrami themes and focuses her events on a particular topic in hopes of having people “walk away with a key message and a key takeaway that they can then apply to their daily lives with their children.”
She said she is working on growing the initiative to include fathers, Papa Bear Club. “We want them (fathers) to be part of the conversation as well. I think there is a lack of programmes and initiatives for them. I feel like if I want to learn something, then I want my husband to learn it as well. Because I want both of us to have the same understanding and outcome for our child. It doesn’t make sense to cater to one and not the other,” she explained.