Sona Petrosyan and son Raphael Martirosyan from My Way, at Art for All Center with Ms. Mona Abdul Karim, SCHS Director, holding painting by My Way student Eva Ghazanchyan

Sona Petrosyan and son Raphael Martirosyan from My Way, at Art for All Center with Ms. Mona Abdul Karim, SCHS Director, holding painting by My Way student Eva Ghazanchyan

Autism and the Emirates

by Muriel Mirak-Weissbach
YEREVAN, APRIL 2, 2020 — It was February 17 in Zvartnots airport, and two young men shared the stool at the red piano and played with energy and passion. It was before the Coronavirus pandemic had brought international travel to a halt, and they were expressing their excitement about their imminent flight.

Raphael Martirosyan and Vardan Ayvazyan were among the six students who were travelling with their mothers to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates for a three-day stay. The students came from Armenian centers for people with disabilities: the Autism National Foundation’s My Way Educational, Rehabilitation and Vocational Training Day Care Center for Children and Teenagers with Autism, and the Yerevan My Love Foundation’s Louse’ Center for Special Needs Children. The visit took place from February 17-20, and offered the Armenian guests the opportunity to visit facilities of the Sharjah City for Humanitarian Services (SCHS), their host.

The SCHS is an independent organization in the Emirate of Sharjah dedicated to providing care for people with disabilities in the UAE. The Director General of the SCHS is Sheikha Jameela Al Qasimi, a person of exceptional capabilities and commitment.

The invitation came at the end of last year, on the occasion of the UAE’s National Day (December 2, 2019), and in the framework of the Year of Tolerance. Upon the initiative of Mohamed Al Zaabi, UAE Ambassador to Armenia, and with the support of Emirate companies in Armenia (Fly Dubai, AirArabia airlines, Carrefour Armenia, Euromotors CJSC, Garden 5, Leaves Garden, Al Khazna Farms and Bainouna International), six students from Armenia were awarded the visit, three from each center.

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A musical sendoff at the airport

Following joint preparatory work with the facilities’ management and the Embassy’s specialists, a program was defined to provide both guests and hosts the opportunity to engage in fruitful exchange, comparing their experiences and approaches, to the benefit of the youngsters as well as their parents. From the Louse’ Center were Kristine Hambardzumyan and her son Gor, Maro Avetisyan and her son Sargis Nalbandyan and Gayane Melkonyan and her son David Baghramyan. From My Way, there was Board Member Mariam Ginosyan and her son Vardan Ayvazyan, Board Member Sona Petrosyan and her son Raphael Martirosyan and Marine Maleryan and her son Gagik Galustov. Two caregivers, Marine Torosyan and Teymine Balinyan, and two specialists from My Way were added to the group, thanks to the support of the ANF, the Embassy and the host organization. The specialists were Suzanna Petrosyan and Narine Vardanyan, managers of the Vocational Training Program and the Early Integration Program, respectively.

The SCHS was founded in 1979 as a branch of the Arab Family Organization in the Gulf region. In 1995 it became an independent organization in Sharjah, with a vast array of facilities designed to develop and educate people with intellectual and physical disabilities. Its director is Mona Abdul Karim. The Armenian delegation had the opportunity to visit and take part in activities at the three main centers. The first was the Art for All Center, whose motto is, “Art is a global language.” My Way also places great emphasis on the therapeutic power of art, so the exchange was based on shared, though different, experiences in creative endeavors. A tour and power point presentation illustrated the approach and experience in Sharjah; turning from theory to practice, the mothers and students took up brushes and painted. Working on canvases, the mothers had various flowers and an owl as subjects for their renderings. An art therapist helped out with color selection and mixing the paints. In parallel the students were working in another studio, coloring ceramic jars, while three other mothers worked with caregivers to prepare natural aromatic means to place in the jars. In addition to instruction in the plastic arts, the center offers performing arts, and the guests joined in the dancing.

The Al Wafa School for Capacity Development, which they visited on Day 2, is an affiliate of SCHS, which organizes information campaigns to raise awareness of mental disabilities and the means to deal with them. The school provides education for children with intellectual disabilities between the ages of 5 and 16. At Al Wafa, the Armenians joined in everywhere, taking part in outdoor activities, including sports and games, and indoor activities. Here music played an important role, and both the local students and the visitors performed songs and instrumental pieces (piano). The center has indoor facilities for games and sports, a rest area, sensory rooms and classrooms, including one dedicated to cooking. Here the visiting mothers joined with mothers of the local students in a workshop, in which they prepared dishes from the Arab and Armenian traditional cuisines. It was described as “exemplary teamwork” which culminated in “a tasty experience.” The mothers of Al Wafa students prepared a memorable surprise for the Armenian visitors — photo opportunities in national bridal dress, according to ancient Arab tradition — and handmade straw fans as souvenirs.

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Mothers in dialogue about national cuisines

The third facility, visited on Day 3, is the Al Masarat Center for Development and Empowerment, which conducts music therapy classes, education in crafts and vocational training. During their visit, the students and their mothers engaged in the process of crafting decorative mosaic frames with the use of various items such as pieces of colored glass. The size of the frame and the artist’s imagination were the only limiting factors determining the final product. Amazingly beautiful items produced by the center’s students were on display. In fact, the Al Masarat Center has a gallery where art works done by the students during the academic year are presented in exhibitions. The visiting students received souvenirs made by the center’ students, ready frames, handmade metal bracelets and unique metal bookmarks.

Then they all boarded a bus for a tour of the city, and in the evening, before sunset, enjoyed an Al Qasba Canal boat tour. The visitors from Yerevan were also treated to tours of the Rain Room and the Aquarium.

In appreciation, the My Way center presented their Sharjah hosts with certificates of appreciation; to the SCHS “for the invaluable input, ongoing efforts and competent approach in the sphere of providing services for children with intellectual disabilities and autistic spectrum disorders, for the warmest welcome and precious and useful pastime….” To the Embassy of the UAE in Armenia, My Way expressed its appreciation “for the long-term fruitful cooperation with Autism National Fund Armenia, for the pro-active support of its initiatives” and especially for making it possible for students and their mothers to visit the UAE, a “unique opportunity” to have such an informative and precious experience.

The hospitality extended to the Armenians was beyond all expectations, and the level of mutual understanding, despite the cultural differences, was profound, especially among the mothers. As Sona Petrosyan from My Way summed it up, “All the mothers of children with disabilities speak the same language of love, dedication, devotion, they share the same concerns and pray for the same thing—for the health and progress of their children, for a secure future for all children with special needs, for making the world a better place for them, for tolerance and acceptance, love and opportunity.”

(All photos courtesy of My Way.)