DUBAI// After five miscarriages and a divorce, Amal Shehab Ahmed thought she might never hear a child call her "mama".
Then she met Sheikha, a four-month-old girl living in a Sharjah home for abandoned children. The connection was instant.
"When I saw this girl, she loved me and I loved her," says Amal, 38, from Dubai.
Four years later, Sheikha - a bright, black-haired girl who starts school this autumn - is part of her family. "Not part," Amal corrects. "All my family."
Twelve to 14 children such as Sheikha pass through Sharjah Social Services each year. The babies are found in mosques or outside villas. Sometimes they are found dead. Sharjah takes in abandoned children from the Northern Emirates. Others go to an orphanage in Al Ain called Dar Zayed.
Then they wait for families, sometimes for years. "It depends on the media," said Afaf Al Marri, who chairs Sharjah Social Services. "If there is a story, we will receive a lot of applications. If there is no story, nobody will come to apply."
Sharjah has long had a system to care for the children, who receive UAE nationality. Other emirates deal with abandoned children, laqeet in Arabic, with a patchwork of procedures. A new federal law signed last month will create uniform process.
"It will be good. I don't want them to be individual initiatives," Ms Al Marri said. "It's better to have a system for all the emirates."
Under sharia, laqeet cannot be adopted; they cannot assume another family's name. But they can be cared for through permanent fostering relationships that grow just as deep as adoptions.
Amal, for example, thrills when Sheikha says "mama". "This word is very big for me," she says. "I am very happy with this word. I thank God."
Only Emiratis can sign up to foster laqeet. In Sharjah, their applications are reviewed by a committee that includes representatives from social services, police and other agencies. A social worker visits the potential home. Then the committee makes a decision. Applicants must be able to financially support a child and must have a clean record with police.
"We are looking for a family - a husband and a wife - but sometimes we will go for a single woman," Ms Al Marri said.
Priority is given to applicants who do not or cannot have children.
Amal, who married while in college, miscarried five times. In 2006, she divorced.
Still wishing to become a mother, she visited Al Wasl Hospital in Dubai, which once had a ward for abandoned children. She was told they accepted only couples as potential foster parents.
"Then I went to Sharjah, just to ask," she says. The application process took a few months, then they told her to come and choose a child.
Amal does not know how or where Sheikha was found. She guessed that the girl's father was Emirati and her mother Indonesian. It does not matter to her.
"Now she is with me," she says. "I am father and mother and everything."
Amal, who works for Dubai Civil Defence, has rebuilt her life around Sheikha. "I am not thinking to marry again, khalas," she says. "This is better for me."
How long an applicant waits for a child depends, Ms Al Marri said. If the family wants a girl it can take longer; girls are more sought after than boys.
Other times it is the child who waits. At the moment, there are eight children in Sharjah awaiting foster families.
There are two boys with disabilities whom Ms Al Marri worries will never find families. One is about 4, the other younger.
"I am always thinking about them," she said.
In 10 years Ms Al Marri has seen one match fail: the child was returned to the care home. But most are successful, she said. The families stay in touch, sending photographs or copies of report cards.
"When we check the oldest files, we see success stories," Ms Al Marri said. "Now they are married, they have their own families. This makes me happy."